Can we feed the clean energy beast with raw materials using fewer imports?
The United States and the civilized world have another weapon against Russia for its unprovoked war against Ukraine: nickel. It is a critical element found inside the batteries used in electric vehicles and for grid balancing. Russia is the world’s third largest supplier of nickel.
But it goes to a broader point: the minerals used for today’s battery storage devices come from places that may not be supportive of democratic values. Other raw materials include lithium, cobalt, graphite and manganese. Can we buy nickel in less hostile countries? Is it possible to recycle these raw materials? And what technologies are on the horizon to replace the dominant lithium-ion battery?
EPRI technical lead Stephanie Shaw says the decision to recycle raw materials or import them must take into account all the “externalities” related to mining and shipping, which have gas implications. Greenhouse effect. And current supply chain disruptions should also be in this table. “Whenever this cost-benefit analysis is done, it needs to include all of these costs throughout the life cycle of the material.
“During recycling, there is the actual extraction of the material and the processing of the material,” explains Shaw, during a webinar organized by the United States Energy Association, in which this journalist was a panelist. “Battery recycling suppliers have been able to significantly improve the efficiency of these processes and create much higher product purity. This expands the ability to enter a different range of products. recycling economy.
Historically, lithium-ion technology uses cobalt, an element that is difficult to extract and can lead to “thermal runaway” or fires. But the technology has a higher density and can store more energy. It is not only used for electric vehicles and grid balancing. It is also used for cell phones which can drain quickly.
To that end, there are competing battery technologies on the horizon. One is “solid state” batteries that eschew lithium and use solid oxides, sulfides, phosphates and polymers. They use no combustible materials and also have a long life – up to 400,000 miles for an electric vehicle. But they are more expensive than lithium-ion batteries. Elon Musk has indicated that this is the direction of Tesla
“Lithium-ion isn’t the only game in town,” says John Howes, director of Redland Energy Group. “Lithium-ion is very energy intensive, but when you start increasing the energy density, you increase the risk associated with that. There is a lot of work to be done, and it will take time to get to where lighter, more powerful batteries can work in electric vehicles.
Where to plow our resources?
“We should focus on finding lithium-free alternatives to address battery storage,” adds Eric Dresselhuys, Managing Director of ESS Inc. “From a cost perspective, lithium iron battery technologies are probably the closest thing we can do.” Due to their reasonable cost, safety features and low toxicity, they are finding markets as a backup power source for Chinese utilities and automotive markets. They don’t use nickel which could come from Russia – or from Indonesia and the Philippines which are much more US friendly.
Dresselhuys says the United States will never be able to surpass China and other emerging nations that lack strong environmental regulations. Therefore, this country should focus on building better and cheaper battery technologies, not on exploring raw materials.
The United States depends on China for cheap labor. Rare earths contain 17 minerals that must be separated, a dirty and laborious effort. China exploits 63% of all these minerals. But it still controls 85% of the processing – the step taken to separate the 17 minerals from the rare earth rock. Consider that the United States still produces 38,000 tons. But this is sent to China for processing. Regarding nickel, the Russian Norlisk Nickel is a major player.
But today’s mining techniques are safe for the environment, suggests Ned Mamula, author and geologist. “Our country has almost all of these resources in abundance. However, we cannot produce them on federal land due to certain permit requirements. Unfortunately, you cannot turn on the tap for these materials, which can take 10 years to go live.
“Our friends in Canada and Australia have much shorter permit periods,” he adds. “We can identify other allies that we can import from. For me, it’s not a long-term plan at all because some of these countries have the same problem as us. The other thing we can do is look at recycling, and then the third thing we can do is look at what can replace some of these minerals and metals in the case of lithium.
Reduce the bottleneck
To that end, President Biden has just invoked the Defense Production Act to accelerate and expand the supply of vital raw materials. By decree, the federal government will call on private companies to produce more raw materials used in batteries. The panelists all agreed that this would have a negligible impact.
Battery storage technology will become increasingly sophisticated. Consider that Ford and General Motors
“Demand is exploding due to clean energy transformation,” says Scott Aaronson, vice president of safety at the Edison Electric Institute. “We have material shortages and manufacturing issues because we are coming out of a pandemic. Chip shortages are impacting chargers, smart meters and other power system components. Businesses innovate and plan by stockpiling whenever appropriate.
He adds that the energy network has already risen to the challenge of expanding its capacity to handle the influx of electric cars. And it will continue to heed that call as more of these vehicles hit the road.
The low-carbon future is here. The march is now towards net zero by 2050. And with that comes more electric vehicles and battery storage devices that support grid operations, driving ever greater investment and innovation. . For now, mineral-intensive lithium-ion batteries do the job. But over time, they will improve or eventually be replaced by cheaper, longer-lasting batteries that are less dependent on imports from hostile countries.
2030 is a strategic point. The sooner we get there, however, the easier it will be to feed the clean energy beast.