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Supply chain concerns are driving research in cobalt-free batteries
Global demand for batteries has exploded over the past decade. The installed output of lithium-ion batteries alone has gone from 0.5 gigawatt-hours in 2010 to around 525 gigawatt-hours ten years later and this is just the beginning.
For the most common type of battery in use today, Bloomberg is projecting global demand to expand to over 9300 gigawatt-hours in the next decade—a startling 17-fold increase.
As the world progressively swaps from fossil fuel-based power to emissions-free electrification, batteries are becoming a vital storage tool to facilitate the energy transition.
Where countries build out renewable energy sources, batteries can help stabilise the grid. They can also help decarbonise road travel or power homes, but supplying the necessary raw materials is becoming a growing concern.
EYE OF THE STORM
Production of batteries requires a variety of metals including lithium, nickel, manganese and cobalt, among others. Procuring these can be expensive, consequently limiting the pace of electrification.
At the same time, the extraction of these raw materials also brings about a set of complex supply chain challenges.
A number of these metals are considered critical minerals and are essential for a wide range of clean technologies that are expected to significantly increase in demand, as countries and companies commit to ambitious net-zero targets.
These two factors of price and demand are the prerequisites for a perfect storm—especially as production and processing operations of lithium-ion batteries are currently concentrated in a small number of countries. The resulting supply chain vulnerability poses a serious threat to electrification.
A solution needs to be reached to scale up processes and speed up the development of producing batteries that use less critical minerals.
Similarly, the development of rechargeable batteries, which are both cost-effective and utilise resources more efficiently, is a necessary step for increased electrification.
Effectively, we need batteries with lithium-nickel-manganese oxide (LNMO) battery cells or similar features that present the above characteristics.
The absence of cobalt and the relatively low nickel content make LNMO battery cells a more sustainable and cost-effective alternative to today’s mainstream high-nickel lithium-ion battery materials.
There is a dire need for deploying cheaper, safer and more sustainable battery materials and this is a step in the right direction for a brighter future.
WHERE WE NEED TO BE
Fortunately, there is a growing consciousness among industry, investment communities and political bodies that availability, diversification, circularity and de-risking of supply sources are key to unlocking the full potential of batteries in the energy transition.
We see more battery projects being matured in Europe, but until we have established more sources of refined raw materials than from the few regions we see today, we are not anywhere close to material independence.
We still need greater collaboration to support sustainable electrification trends and expand battery applications. Not only will this improve material efficiency, but it will also reduce energy dependence.
And ultimately, what really drives progress is demonstrating how sustainable batteries benefit the everyday life of society when brought to use, for instance, in trains, e-ferries and micro-transport, and any opportunity to display this will be a great catalyst for change.
Supportive government legislation is the plug, and private investment is the charge—to keep the race to net zero alive. It is absolutely vital that these two components are accelerated hand-in-hand.•
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