By Zenger, Charles Epstein.
The future of battery technology means new propulsion systems and power generators will become more energy-efficient, environmentally friendly and cheaper.
The world’s largest battery makers are pursuing these goals in China, South Korea, Europe and the U.S. Developed nations are accelerating these non-carbon developments as they move from fossil fuels and toward new electrical sources to power autos and eventually entire cities.
This new battery technology is so important that President Joe Biden created a Presidential Invocation of Defense Production Act for Battery Materials to develop a domestic supply chain. This legislative act is essential to national security — battery metals can be mined through environmentally and socially responsible methods.
To accomplish these new national goals, battery manufacturers use everything from 3D printing, water-based battery-manufacturing processes and new chemicals to produce longer-lasting batteries with higher energy density.
Often, they are made by new manufacturing processes.
Today, the world leaders in lithium-ion (LI) battery manufacturing are the China-based company CATL, the leading lithium-ion battery maker with a market share of 32.5 percent in 2021, followed by Korea’s L.G. Chem, with 21.5 percent. Third place was held by Panasonic, at 14.7 percent.
LI batteries have become the most popular energy source because they are powerful and can recharge without little degradation.
The U.S. is also trying to fill the battery tech gap with a $3.1 billion infusion of federal money from the U.S. Energy Department. The funding was part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill to build battery materials technology.
The largest battery manufacturers in the U.S. are Tesla, followed by General Motors, Ford and Volkswagen. Other non-U.S. battery materials providers include Samsung, L.G. and Panasonic, which announced plans to increase U.S. production.
All these companies are working to find cheaper, longer-lasting and environmentally friendly batteries. But making this historic technological transformation will require significant changes, such as discovering and developing new eco-friendly raw materials, and creating new storage technologies.
While research is moving ahead globally, here are some developments in each critical areas:
Building More Powerful Batteries
At the University of Texas, researchers are studying a new type of cathode that uses 89 percent nickel, supplemented with manganese and aluminum instead of the more expensive cobalt. Nickel is more abundant, cheaper and a better storage medium than cobalt.
New cathode designs are also improving efficiency.
NAWA Technologies of Rouset, France, has designed and patented its Ultra-Fast Carbon Electrode, which it claims is a “unique electrode material that combines the best of nanotechnology and clean technology. The new design uses a vertically-aligned carbon nanotube the firm says can make batteries 10 times more powerful, boost energy storage capacity three times and boost battery life five times.
“The cobalt-free cathodes are now scaled up by a startup company TexPower EV Technologies in Houston, Texas. TexPower is in the process of putting up a pilot plant to manufacture 150 tons of cobalt-free cathodes per year,” Nat Levy of the University of Texas Cockrell School of Engineering told Zenger in an email.
Levy added the cost to produce the new type of battery “will be certainly lowered, and the driving range will be increased. But it is hard to put a number for cost reduction at this stage as the prices of cobalt and nickel fluctuate.”
Sourcing New Raw Battery Materials
At the California Institute of Technology, the search is for more environmentally friendly materials, such as calcium, zinc and magnesium. These materials are more readily available and cause minor environmental damage than mining for lithium, nickel and cobalt, the current core battery materials.
Using combinations of these more-available materials can produce more powerful batteries, but there is always a trade-off, according to Kimberly See, Caltech assistant professor of chemistry. Lee said her research indicates these combinations of materials could match or even exceed lithium’s energy density, known as volumetric energy density, because they can store more electrons than their lithium counterparts.
In Woodinville, Washington, Group14 Technologies has invented a silicon-carbon composite material to substitute for graphite anodes, now used in lithium-ion batteries. This composite lithium-silicon battery cell material can boost battery performance by 50 percent and accelerate recharging times, according to Rick Costantino, Chief Technology Officer of Group14 Technologies.
The company’s website describes the new lithium-silicon material as having five times the capacity and up to 50 percent more energy density than conventional graphite for Lithium battery anodes.
“Its unique hard carbon-based scaffolding keeps silicon in the ideal form – amorphous, nano-sized, and carbon-encased. The result is the best-in-class anode material that exhibits outstanding first cycle efficiency and long life upon Li-ion battery cycling,” Costantino said.
In a release, Costantino said the new technology is “a significant milestone in our goal to enable EVs to achieve true cost-parity with internal combustion engines.”
Advances in Storage Technology
Energy storage is essential to take the energy produced by wind, solar, hydrogen, water and batteries and then power electrical grids and electric vehicles.
Advances in storage are coming fast.
Ryan Brown, co-founder-CEO of Salient Energy, a Canada-based zinc-ion battery manufacturer, said this decade “will be a breakout decade for the energy storage sector.” Brown said that because of its cheap cost to produce, lithium-ion batteries should dominate storage technology shortly. But that could change.
The industry is also developing alternative storage technologies by turning to hydrogen-related sources. These include lithium-iron-phosphate combinations that can replace lithium-ion and new applications, such as flow batteries that rely on a zinc hybrid cathode device. Brown noted that zinc is over 100 times more abundant than lithium, cheaper and more environmentally friendly.
Storage technology also received a huge boost from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill that could inject up to $9 billion, including $2.5 billion for “alternative fueling technologies.” This bill will create a national standard for electric vehicle (E.V.) charging stations using Direct Current Fast Charging technology, John Miller, a Cowan Washington research group policy analyst, said in an April 2022 podcast.
Miller said: “The impact of this spending remains underappreciated as expectations for E.V. charging investments became decoupled from political reality in 2021. We see multiple positives,” including an expected inflow of new investments into these technologies. The states that should be significant beneficiaries of the $1 billion in new funds include Texas, California and Florida.
Making Better Batteries for the Environment
With the proliferation of batteries, recycling them will benefit the environment. In Nevada, the American Battery Technology Co. (ABTC) said it is developing and “commercializing a first-of-kind processing train to manufacture battery-grade lithium hydroxide from Nevada-based sedimentary claystone resources.”
Company CEO and chief technology officer Ryan Melsert told Zenger.news via email the company has received a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Manufacturing Office, in partnership with DuPont. DOE funding was about $2.2 million and the costs share the same, for a total of over $4.5 million. While in the research phase, the company said it had produced battery metal lithium products that are more environmentally friendly than other processes.
On the application side, Melsert said ABTC “has pioneered a closed-loop battery recycling process that will separate and recover critical materials, including lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese and copper from end-of-life batteries. The recovered materials are then purified back into battery metals to the same, or higher, quality specifications than conventional materials sourced from virgin mining operations.”
As an example of how complex this recycling process has become, Melsert said ABTC’s recycling and primary extraction processes were developed and “continually optimized” by scientists housed at its facilities in Reno, Nevada, and Somerville, Mass. Once completed, the company’s Fernley, Nevada, recycling facility will house a research and application center, including onsite analytical and process laboratories and test areas for validating next-generation technologies.
To make recycling more efficient, a team from Florida Atlantic University (FAU) and the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research are working together. The goal is to produce recyclable and environmentally-friendly electrodes and then use nanotechnology to isolate and recycle valuable, reusable materials.
By inserting microscopic magnetic markers in specific ratios into the electrode components, specific batteries and their recyclable components can be identified, according to FAU’s Karl Mandel, professor of inorganic chemistry.
“The markers enable the constituent parts of batteries to be separated, according to type, using electrohydraulic fragmentation, which another research team in the consortium is investigating in detail,” Mandel wrote. The project also uses centrifuges to isolate valuable battery materials as part of the recycling process.
Edited by Fern Siegel and Matthew B. Hall