In the world of renewable energy, lithium-ion batteries are the kings of storage, accounting for around 70% of electric vehicles (EVs) and 90 percent network batteries worldwide. As such, they are becoming increasingly important in a world trying to reduce its carbon emissions by electrifying homes, cars, etc. (Not that mining lithium or the various rare earth metals in battery production is carbon free.)
However, there are some problems with lithium-ion batteries, according to a recent Atlantic Council Report. On the one hand, existing supply chains for minerals used for batteries are likely to be stretched to their limits as the world shifts to renewable energy.
But there are also geopolitical factors that could disrupt these supply chains. For example, many minerals related to the production of these batteries are either obtained or processed in Russia and China. For the United States, this could mean that the security of the supply chains of these batteries is threatened by geopolitical conflicts. For example, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine saw the nickel price—a critical component of EV batteries—is soaring.
As such, the Atlantic Council report investigates and compares alternative battery chemistries that do not rely on lithium. These may offer some situational advantages over lithium-ion batteries (although the strengths and weaknesses vary from type to type). Some are more profitable or have superior performance; others use supply chains less prone to geopolitical turbulence.
“Ultimately, that’s the crux of the matter – how these contribute to a more diverse and resilient supply chain for energy storage technology,” Ryan told Ars.
Some of the alternative batteries reviewed include sodium-ion batteries, sodium-sulfur batteries, liquid metal batteries, and zinc-ion batteries. The report also examines different lithium-ion chemistries, such as nickel, manganese, and cobalt (NMC) and lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries. These lithium-ion chemistries avoid some of the problems found with other types of LFP batteries, for example, do not use cobalt, an expensive ingredient. According to Paddy Ryan, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center, there are other alternative battery chemistries (such as flow stacks) the newspaper did not review because they are still “in their infancy”.
The Atlantic Council has published past research on U.S. mineral needs switch to electric vehicle and the role that United States-Canada Cooperation could play in the development of environmentally friendly mineral supply chains. And, throughout this process, the organization has explored technological solutions to reduce the amounts of minerals used in various green energy technologies. As such, finding alternative minerals to use in batteries has become a “clear next step”, Ryan said.
The Global Energy Center has also compiled a list of essential minerals for renewable energy sources and batteries, as they “become increasingly important as the energy transition continues”, he said.
Work on the recent document began last January, before Russia invaded Ukraine. Russia plays a key role in the world nickel supply, mining 21% of the world’s Class 1 nickel, which is pure enough to be used in electric vehicle battery systems. Meanwhile, China, which is currently exerting military and political pressure on Taiwan to reunite with the Chinese mainland, refines 80% of the world’s cobalt and also plays a key role in the supply chain of cobalt. other critical minerals for electric vehicle batteries such as manganese, lithium, graphite and others.
“Because of this, increasing geopolitical tensions between the United States on the one hand and China on the other present a certain level of political risk to the clean energy transition,” Ryan said.