The raw materials behind lithium-ion batteries

The growing demand for lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) is transforming the energy landscape, especially in the electric vehicle and renewable energy sectors. To appreciate this revolution, it's crucial to understand the intricate web of raw materials that drive LIB production, along with the environmental and geopolitical challenges they present. Additionally, exploring alternative battery technologies with different material requirements offers insights into future energy storage solutions.

LIBs require an array of materials throughout their production. Ores and crude oil kickstart the process, while the cathode material, often transition metal-based, is a substantial contributor to the battery’s material footprint. Components like copper and aluminum collectors, along with aluminum or steel casings, add to the demand. Solvents for the electrolyte and separator foils are derived from petrochemical sources, and the anode material, graphite, can be mined or produced synthetically from petrochemical precursors.

Mining and processing associated with raw material extraction come with ecological, social, and geopolitical concerns. Cobalt mining conditions in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the environmental impact of lithium extraction have drawn scrutiny. These challenges underscore the need for responsible sourcing and sustainable practices in the battery supply chain.

Lithium is a common denominator across LIBs due to its efficiency and low weight. Current LIBs offer storage capacities between 9 and 12 kWh per kilogram of lithium used. With the surge in battery demand reaching gigawatt-hour and terawatt-hour levels, tens to hundreds of kilotons of lithium are required annually.

Lithium production is relatively small, with much already allocated to LIBs. Alternative battery systems, relying on sodium, aluminum, or calcium, have more extensive supply structures. Sodium, in particular, is abundant in the Earth’s crust and seawater, promising long-term stability.

Exploring alternatives reveals different material distribution dynamics. Vanadium, crucial for redox flow batteries, is primarily produced in China and Russia, potentially limiting its availability in Europe.

The LIB industry’s foundation is a complex interplay of raw materials, environmental concerns, and global distribution. While lithium is the frontrunner, alternative battery technologies leverage different materials, offering potential solutions for sustainable energy storage. Understanding these dynamics is pivotal in shaping a resilient and environmentally responsible energy future.

Source: Alternative Battery Technologies Roadmap 2030+ | Isi fraunhofer

Source: Alternative Battery Technologies Roadmap 2030+ | Isi fraunhofer
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