By 2028, production of lithium-based batteries is predicted to rise by as much as 400%.
As we transition to a low carbon economy, the way we generate and use energy will fundamentally change. Renewable energy, energy storage and electric vehicles will be cornerstones of this new energy system, and all will lean heavily on battery technology.
Forecasts consequently predict a truly staggering rise in the demand for lithium-based batteries. Estimates suggest that this increased demand will see global production rise by 400 percent by 2028, with major expansion due in China, Europe and North America.
There is a problem.
Mining for Battery Materials
We rely heavily on limited sources of key materials used in the manufacture of batteries. China dominates the production of graphite and silicon used in anodes. Most of the lithium we use is from South America. Most of the cobalt from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Current supplies are insufficient to meet the accelerated demand.
Plus, there are significant and well-known environmental, social and governance concerns associated with these supply chains. Tackling them is challenging.
Some in the industry expect new mines to solve the problem of supply. But increasing mining capacity is a difficult and at times controversial business. According to Bloomberg, mining businesses are currently investing more in marijuana production than in exploring new sources of minerals.
Europe has considerable reserves of the materials used in batteries – the European Commission published an extensive study on the subject – but this potential is currently unrealised. As a sustainability professional, it feels incongruous for me to advocate mining. But the future of a low carbon economy is reliant on key extracted materials. I would rather that the necessary mining was going on in my back yard, in Europe, and its impacts managed locally. The alternative is to outsource the burden to less wealthy countries, where the economic benefits are rarely shared.
Batteries and Recycling
If not new mines, then perhaps the circular economy with high levels of recycling, will come to the rescue.
However, batteries are increasingly designed to contain smaller amounts of expensive materials, such as cobalt. The technical requirement to recover smaller quantities makes the economics of operating a battery recycling business difficult. It currently costs more money to recycle batteries than can be recovered through selling the materials they contain, although some lead batteries are an exception to this.
This is one reason why there are few actual processors. In reality, there are a large number of aggregators feeding into a small number of processors, just a handful around the world. Equally, refurbishment is a technically difficult affair and handling both waste and new batteries requires a considerable focus on safety.
None of these issues are insurmountable; markets prices go up and down. But we are going to need some serious investment in sourcing materials for batteries from both recycled and sustainable virgin supplies. If not, the transition to a low carbon economy will soon run out of power.
Using Batteries Sustainably
We also need to think seriously about responsible consumption. Batteries have the potential to be a great activator for sustainability, but can be equally problematic.
During Christmas 2019, a UK high street retailer ran an unusual advertising campaign. It involved putting a small LCD screen, powered by batteries, on the front of the free newspaper that is handed out to London commuters.
From a recycling perspective, adding e-waste into a paper waste stream is not smart. The newspaper also didn’t have the required labelling, making the stunt illegal. Not to mention that waste batteries are a fire risk, so surrounding them in newspaper is downright dangerous.
I am worried that a significant proportion of the 400 percent increase in battery production will be powering useless novelties, rather than our transition to a low carbon economy. I hope I’m wrong.