How will the world be able to produce enough electric vehicles and batteries?
The era of the electric vehicle has arrived. GM, the world’s largest automaker, stated earlier this year that it plans to stop selling gasoline and diesel vehicles by 2035.
Audi, a German automaker, intends to discontinue making such vehicles by 2033. Similar route maps have been released by a number of other automobile corporations.
The hesitation of major manufacturers to electrify their fleets has suddenly transformed into a fast retreat.
Even the most enthusiastic proponents of personal mobility electrification could not have predicted this only a few years ago. Government requirements will speed transformation in many nations.
According to the Bloomberg NEF (BNEF) consultancy in London, even without additional rules or regulations, half of global passenger car sales in 2035 will be electric.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) said in May that this vast industrial switch indicates a “transition from a fuel-intensive to a material-intensive energy system.”
Hundreds of millions of automobiles with large batteries inside will hit the roads in the next decades (see ‘Going electric’). Each of those batteries will contain tens of kg of yet-to-be-mined materials.
Materials scientists are tackling two major hurdles in preparation for a world dominated by electric cars.
One is how to reduce the amount of scarce, costly, or problematic metals in batteries that are mined at high environmental and societal costs.
Another option is to enhance battery recycling so that precious metals in used automotive batteries may be utilised effectively. “Recycling will be a big part of it,” says Kwasi Ampofo, BNEF’s lead metals and mining analyst.
Government incentives and the prospect of future restrictions have prompted battery and carmakers to invest billions of dollars in lowering the costs of manufacturing and recycling electric-vehicle (EV) batteries.
National research organisations have also established centres to investigate new ways to manufacture and recycle batteries. Because mining metals is still cheaper than recycling them in most cases, developing ways to recover precious metals cheaply enough to compete with newly extracted ones is a significant objective.
“Money is the largest talker,” says Jeffrey Spangenberger, a chemical engineer at Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois, who oversees the ReCell lithium-ion battery recycling effort, which is financed by the US government.
Future of Lithium
The first task for researchers is to limit the amount of metals that must be mined for electric vehicle batteries.
According to statistics from Argonne National Laboratory, a single automobile lithium-ion battery pack (of the kind known as NMC532) may contain roughly 8 kg of lithium, nickel, manganese (20 kg), and cobalt (14 kg per).
The International Energy Agency (IEA) said in May that this vast industrial switch indicates a “transition from a fuel-intensive to a material-intensive energy system.
” Hundreds of millions of automobiles with large batteries inside will hit the roads in the next decades (see ‘Going electric’). And each of those batteries will have tens of thousands of cells.
According to experts, lithium-ion batteries are unlikely to be phased out anytime soon since their costs have plummeted so dramatically.
They are predicted to stay the dominating technology for the foreseeable future. Even though their performance has increased, they are now 30 times cheaper than when they initially hit the market as tiny, portable batteries in the early 1990s.
By 2023, according to BNEF, the cost of a lithium-ion EV battery pack will be less than US$100 per kilowatt-hour, or around 20% less than it is now (see ‘Plummeting prices of batteries’).
As a consequence, by the mid-2020s, electric automobiles, which are presently more expensive than conventional cars, should have reached price parity.
(According to some estimations, electric automobiles are already cheaper than gasoline vehicles throughout their lifetimes due to their lower cost of ownership.)
Internally, lithium-ion batteries transfer lithium ions from one layer, the anode, to another, the cathode, to generate power.
A further layer, the electrolyte, separates the two. The most expensive metals are found in the cathodes, which are the key limiting factor in battery performance.
A typical lithium-ion battery cell’s cathode is a thin layer of goo containing micro-scale crystals that resemble minerals found naturally in the Earth’s crust or mantle, such as olivines or spinels.
The crystals combine negatively charged oxygen with positively charged lithium and numerous other metals, including nickel, manganese, and cobalt in most electric automobiles. When a battery is charged, lithium ions are ripped from these oxide crystals and pulled into the battery.
Crank up the volume
Whichever recycling processes become standard, scale will help. Although the approaching torrent of expended batteries is being portrayed in the media as a looming calamity, analysts view it as a huge opportunity, according to Melin.
When millions of huge batteries approach the end of their useful life, economies of scale will kick in, making recycling more effective — and the commercial case for recycling will be stronger. for it more attractive.
Analysts say the example of lead-acid batteries — the ones that start petrol-powered cars — gives reason for optimism.
Because lead is dangerous, such batteries are considered hazardous waste and must be properly disposed of.
Despite the fact that lead is inexpensive, an efficient business has emerged to recycle them. According to Kamath, “nearly 98 percent of lead-acid batteries are collected and repurposed.”
“The value of a lead-acid battery is even lower than a lithium-ion battery. But because of volume, it makes sense to recycle anyway,” Melin says.
It may be some time before the market for lithium-ion batteries achieves its full potential, in part because these batteries have grown quite durable: current automotive batteries, according to Kamath, might last up to 20 years.
According to Melin, the battery pack in a typical electric car delivered today will outlast the vehicle it was constructed into.
As a result, when old EVs are scrapped, the batteries are frequently neither discarded nor repurposed. Instead, they are removed and repurposed for less demanding purposes like fixed energy storage or boat propulsion.
After ten years of use, a car battery such as the Nissan Leaf’s, which originally held 50 kilowatt-hours, will have lost at most 20% of its capacity.
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