It seems that not much has changed from the age of petrol-fueled vehicles to our current era of electric vehicles(EVs). Scientists are still grappling worldwide over the depleting availability of resources and the effective usage of those resources to meet the rising demand in the automotive industry.
By Ashwini Balan, Eastern Trade Media
General Motors earlier this year announced their commitment towards being carbon neutral, and added that by 2035, all their vehicles will consist of zero tailpipe emissions. Audi, another leading multinational automotive manufacturer, pledges to end the production of combustion-engine by 2033.
With these two market leaders taking the leap forward to an all-electric future, many multinational companies are overwhelmed with the pressure to quickly transition to EVs to maintain their competitive edge but more importantly, meet the rising consumer demand. Boston Consulting Group (BCG) analysis forecasts that by 2026, more than half of new passenger vehicles sold worldwide will be electric.
With the shift from fuel-intensive to material-intensive energy sources, there are two main concerns that scientists are struggling to resolve. Firstly, to reduce the usage of metal in batteries as it is scarce, expensive, environmentally toxic and working conditions hazardous to miners. Secondly, would be to create a recyclable battery system to maximise the utility of the valuable metals available.
Lithium-ion batteries are highly used in EVs due to their low cost which is 30 times cheaper than when they first entered the market in the early 1990s. In addition, BNEF estimated that the current reserves of lithium— 21 million tonnes, according to the US Geological Survey — are enough to carry the conversion to EVs through to the mid-century. Hence, what concerns researches in EV batteries is Cobalt and Nickel.
In an attempt to address this issue, researches have been experimenting in removing both cobalt and nickel from the composition of EV batteries. However, to successfully remove them would radically transform the cathode materials. In recent years, Ceder’s team and other groups have displayed that certain lithium-rich rock salts were able to perform without the use of cobalt or nickel and yet remain stable in the process. In particular, they can be made with manganese, which is cheap and plentiful, Ceder says.
To create a battery recycling system, another hurdle to overcome is the cost of recycling lithium. A potential solution would be through government support, which is seen in China where financial and regulatory incentives for battery companies are given to source materials from recycling firms instead of importing freshly mined ones, says Hans Eric Melin, managing director of Circular Energy Storage, a consulting company in London.
It is also problematic for manufacturers in their recycling efforts, when the chemistry of cathodes become obsolete at the end of the cars’ life cycle. In response to that, material scientist Andrew Abbott at the University of Leicester, UK developed a technique for separating out cathode materials using ultrasound. He adds that this method works effectively in battery cells that are packed flat rather than rolled up and can make recycled materials much cheaper than virgin mined metals.
Scaling up the volume of lithium also aids in reducing the cost of recycling and this would make it economically viable for businesses to adopt it says Melin. The example of lead-acid batteries — the ones that start petrol-powered cars — gives reason for optimism. “The value of a lead-acid battery is even lower than a lithium-ion battery. But because of volume, it makes sense to recycle anyway,” Melin says.
With the collaborative effort among policymakers, researchers and manufacturers an all-electric future is an attainable reality.
 M. S. Ziegler & J. E. Trancik Energy Environ. Sci.2021
 BloombergNEF. Electric Vehicle Outlook 2021 (BNEF, 2021)
 Yang, J. H., Kim, H. & Ceder, G. Molecules 26, 3173 (2021)
 Lei, C. et al. Green Chem. 23, 4710–4715 (2021)
 Melin, H. E. et al. Science 373, 384–387 (2021).
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