Rising lithium costs and environmental and safety concerns have seen a large number of lithium-ion battery (LiB) developers investigate alternatives to the critical metal in recent years.
Higher battery demand had already resulted in the price of battery metals – in particular lithium – skyrocketing, with the price of lithium eight times higher than at the start of 2021.
According to Leonardo Paoli, a clean energy technologies analyst with the International Energy Agency (IEA), rising demand and higher prices beg the question of whether the world would have enough metals and minerals to support a global electrification ambition.
It has been estimated that the supply of some minerals, such as lithium, will need to increase by up to one third by 2030 to match the demand for electric vehicle (EV) batteries to satisfy global pledges and announcements.
The increasingly challenging supply chain environment facing auto makers has already seen a number of EV makers extend their delivery timeframes for various models out to 2023.
There are also the concerns that rising battery minerals costs will have a significant impact on the viability of new EVs. Benchmark Mineral Intelligence has suggested if lithium prices remain at the peaks seen in China in early 2022 that could boost the cost of a new EV by US$1,000.
On the environmental side, a number of Andean countries continue to raise concern and the impact of lithium mining carried out using saline water.
It is estimated that one ton of lithium will require 2.2M gallons of water to produce. There have also been reports of certain lithium batteries causing fires after overheating.
Evolving battery chemistries
According to Mr Paoli, several possible battery cell chemistries are now available for EVs, with battery cathode chemical compositions having evolved over the past five years and are expected to continue to do so thanks to research and innovation efforts.
“If battery metal markets remain tight and commodity prices remain high, it is possible that automakers will shift more rapidly to chemistries that are less intensive in terms of critical metals and they will speed up their research and development for alternative chemistries,” Mr Paoli told a webinar.
There are also a number of alternatives currently under development that have attracted interest from car and battery manufacturers. Here are some of them.
Solid Power, Ford and BMW
Solid Power Inc. (NASDAQGS: SLDP), has extensive partnerships with both BMW (XTRA: BMW) and Ford (NYSE: F) to jointly develop all-solid-state batteries. In late 2021, Solid Power announced a partnership with SK Innovation (KOSE: A096770) to produce Solid Power’s automotive-scale all-solid-state battery cells utilizing Solid Power’s sulphide-based solid electrolyte, proprietary cell designs, and production processes.
The company was initially funded by prominent investors including Hyundai (KOSE: A005380), Volta Energy Technologies, Umicore (ENXTBR: UMI), Sanoh (TSE: 6584), A123 Systems and Solvay (ENXTBR: SOLB).
Solid Power is confident its all-solid-state battery cell technology can provide key improvements over conventional liquid-based lithium-ion technology and next-gen hybrid cells, including considerably higher energy and greatly improved safety.
In early June this year, it was revealed that the potential for magnesium to offer a sustainable and affordable alternative to lithium in batteries is being explored in research led by the University of Strathclyde, Scotland.
The study, funded by the Faraday Institution, will develop suitable electrolytes, which connect electrodes to each other and allow current to flow, for use in rechargeable, high energy density batteries. They will be capable of supporting efficient and repeatable transfer of magnesium between the batteries’ electrodes, and will have high stability to withstand the operating conditions of the battery.
The electrolytes will be tested for electrochemical performance against existing cathode materials and analysed for their performance and stability.
“We are going through a period of massive battery demand, with governments setting targets for EVs and increasing demand for off-grid storage to store renewable energy for times when there is no wind or sun,” said Dr Stuart Robertson, a senior lecturer in the Department of Pure and Applied Chemistry at Strathclyde University.
“Lithium is used extensively in batteries but it is not in great natural abundance and tends not to be recycled from spent batteries. Batteries in EVs also need to be much larger than those in a phone or a laptop.
“We have been encouraged by the performance of magnesium in experiments we have carried out so far. At Strathclyde, we are a team of synthetic chemists and, with this grant from the Faraday Institution, we will be working on the design, synthesis, and testing of electrolytes along with electrochemists at the University of Sheffield and National Physical Laboratory.”
According to a new research report, the global sodium-ion battery market size is set for some serious expansion on account of the steadfast rise in the renewable energy capacity across the world.
While lithium-ion batteries are in high demand, sodium-ion batteries are slowly gaining popularity as their advantages over lithium-ion batteries are gradually coming to the fore.
Research conducted by the Nagoya Institute of Technology found that sodium-ion batteries are highly beneficial for sustainability for numerous reasons. For instance, sodium is an abundantly available material as it can be found in large quantities in the earth’s crust and in seawater.
This would ensure regular supply of the element without too many price fluctuations, giving it a distinct advantage over lithium which is not as common.
Sodium-ion batteries also have a faster charging time, making them the ideal substitute to lithium-ion batteries, according to the report.
One leading alternative that is gaining popularity are vanadium redox flow batteries (VRFBs).
VRFBs proponents claim the technology has a number of significant advantages, including:
- VRFBs have a lifespan of 20+ years
- VRFBs offer immediate energy release
- VRFBs are suitable for grid connection or off-grid settings – ideal for renewable energy
- VRFBs can discharge 100%, without any damage to the battery
- VRFBs are non-flammable
- Power and energy can be scaled independently
- Vanadium electrolyte can be reused and does not need to be disposed of
- The batteries can be cycled more than once per day
- They use only one element in electrolyte – V2O5
- VRFB energy storage guarantees uninterrupted power supply
According to Merchant Research & Consulting Ltd, the global vanadium market has come to a certain balance of supply and demand in recent years, and the decline in metal prices has led to renewed interest in researching the production of vanadium redox batteries.