Batteries: The Positives and Negatives of America’s Energy Future
In the 220 years since Alessandro Volta invented the first “electric pile,” the predecessor of the modern battery, batteries have played an important, albeit second-fiddle role, in the energy landscape. Often thought of as the energy source that starts your car, powers a flashlight in an emergency, or allows your smartphone to operate, the battery today is ubiquitous, but still an afterthought for most.
But that is changing, and changing rapidly. We are in the midst of a battery revolution, one in which batteries will eventually power cars and trucks for thousands of miles on a single charge, provide reliable, carbon-free electricity to the grid after being charged by renewable resources, or even power airplanes on short to medium-length flights. And those are just the more obvious applications.
Over the next 10 years, according to Swiss financial services giant UBS, lithium-ion battery prices will continue to drop, driving a decrease in large scale energy storage costs by as much as 66 to 80 percent, creating a ripple effect that will cause entire new ecosystems to grow and develop in support of a new age of battery-powered electricity. Those effects will be felt throughout society.
The potential for batteries as a transformative force in society was acknowledged when the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to the three scientists who developed the lithium-ion battery. In awarding the prize, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences projected that “future [lithium-ion battery] breakthroughs will undoubtedly lead to further improvements in our lives, not only for our convenience, but also with respect to global and local environments and, ultimately, the sustainability of our entire planet.”
This is promising. As we progress rapidly down the path of establishing a battery-driven society, we should heed past experience and recognize that this abundance of batteries will need to be managed at their end-of-life, and failing to plan for that now could wreak environmental havoc and waste precious natural resources.
One key to addressing this concern is relatively simple, and can be captured in a mnemonic - DISS, for “design it simple and smart.”
By designing simple and smart batteries, and establishing supply chain requirements, three important issues can be addressed:
Batteries that use recyclable materials as much as possible, and are easy to disassemble and recycle at end of life, support a “circular economy” for batteries that maximizes the use of raw materials and significantly reduces waste
Batteries that are simple to charge and maintain will result in extended battery life, reducing the need for new raw materials
Establish supply chain requirements for sustainably sourced raw materials to reduce negative human and environmental impacts from the mining process, , which often occur in developing countries.
At the Responsible Battery Coalition, we are working with battery manufacturers, recyclers, the automotive industry, fleet owners and academia to move battery technology forward in a sustainable manner.
A major issue of looming concern is the role of the U.S. in the global advanced battery market. Today, the U.S. is heavily dependent on foreign sources of raw materials and battery components and, to a lesser degree, assembled batteries. This is especially true with regard to lithium-ion batteries, where China has a corner on lithium sourcing, refining and cell manufacturing, accounting for approximately 75 percent of global li-ion battery production. Under this scenario, even a U.S.-built EV battery is made predominantly of materials and components from China.
This trend suggests the need for a two-pronged approach to ensuring the domestic availability of advanced batteries. First, the U.S. must aggressively seek to secure natural resources through partnerships with lithium-producing countries. Second, we must develop a sustainable closed loop – “circular” – recycling system for advanced batteries in the U.S. to ensure that we recover and re-use their components to the greatest degree possible.
From initial extraction of minerals, to design and manufacturing, through lifetime use and then recycling we should begin creating a broader, U.S.-based advanced battery design and manufacturing program — a true “battery economy” initiative. This would give us greater leverage in choosing from whom the U.S. buys raw battery materials, while also increasing our domestic materials refining and cell production capabilities. The policy of the U.S. should be to move toward creating a domestic “battery economy” by owning or controlling the process of making cells and batteries, here in the U.S., and not just being a final assembler of parts made elsewhere.
Steve Christensen is the executive director of the Responsible Battery Coalition.