After years of research, Lithium Ion Batteries (LIBs) have established themselves as the unique, preferred means to store power. From handheld camcorders to smartphones, laptops to electric vehicles and space stations, and large power plants to home UPS devices, LIBs find a variety of applications. The small size of the batteries, lightweight, affordability, and ability to sustain multiple charge cycles make LIBs a popular choice for energy storage.
The growth in use is propelled by megatrends such as climate-driven sustainability, immense infrastructure growth, ever-expanding communications, and digitization. First developed in the 1970s they are used extensively in commercial electric vehicles (EVs). By 2025, in value terms, the global demand for LIBs is likely to cross about $100 billion with the automobile sector leading as the fastest-growing consumer.
Two key safety and sustainability aspects continue to impede the growth envisaged in LIB usage. In India, reports of fatality and material loss due to fire from LIBs are rising. While not much data from India is available on battery waste, recycling associations overseas clearly report an unexpected increase in the number of fires, most of it attributable to LIBs.
Concern around sustainability and lifecycle management of LIBs necessitates consideration in two dimensions (1) Will our mines be able to cater to the growing demand for metals required for these batteries? and (2) Can countries find environmentally sustainable solutions to deal with the mountains of garbage created by end-of-life batteries?
(i) Safety: The EV sector is unique and is bracing through several demands that have an overall bearing on the safety of the vehicles. First pertains to delivering vehicles that are not just sleek, slim, and lightweight in design but also those that offer maximum range and performance.
Second, pertains to meeting fast-charging expectations. Both range and fast charging aspects require thorough understanding all the way from the metal chemistries to the overall LIB system level.
The third is the ever-evolving metal compositions that offer high performance and affordability. As batteries constitute a significant part of the EV cost, cheaper metals and components (including battery management systems) ensure viability in a hugely competitive market.
Fourth is the quality of raw materials and components which necessitate the need for high-fidelity manufacturing practices.
The fifth aspect relates to the extreme temperature sensitivity of LIBs. EV designs, deployed worldwide, need highly efficient thermal management systems and fault-detection mechanisms to avoid thermal runaways similar to the incidents that have been witnessed recently.
The design of EVs is complex. Unlike traditional practices, the design of EVs is integrated with that of the battery and its components. The customizations on the battery end get only more complex with new features, swappable battery options, and connectivity requirements as in the case of autonomous cars. Notwithstanding all of the above, EVs also need an accelerated go-to-market approach to cater to the sustainability goals driven by organizations and nations across the world.
(ii) Environmental sustainability: According to predictions, the volume of end-of-life LIBs is likely to increase from 7,05,000 tonnes in 2025 to about 9 million tonnes by 2040. As the long-term sustainability of depending on primary mineral sources (mines) is in question, recycling is key.
Some of the world’s largest battery OEMs procure their own end-of-life products for recycling. Rather than recover each metal separately, they recover them as alloys or aggregates. However, as metal chemistries between newer generations of batteries are different from those manufactured 7-10 years ago (average lifetime of LIBs), the long-term viability of such an approach poses quite some evolutionary risk.
Most recycling processes today practice partial recovery wherein only high-margin metals are recovered from waste; the rest is discarded. This results in a loss of economic opportunity for nations, most of which continue to rely on high-cost imports. It also provides the little economic incentive for other recyclers to recover low-margin metals from discarded waste.
Measures to mitigate the environmental, social, and financial impacts of LIB waste are being rolled out and on August 24, the government notified the Battery Waste Management Rules 2022 to manage a wide range of batteries that include LIBs. The mechanism of “Extended Producer Responsibility” (EPR) increases the accountability battery manufacturers need to assume towards the collection, refurbishment/recycling of batteries. This move is expected to accelerate the development of infrastructure for waste collection and improve recycling rates from the mere 5-9 percent, as it stands today.
A mandated minimum percentage of recycled material in all products also opens doors for new technologies to be adopted. The need of the hour is to accelerate the development of circular economy solutions that recycle all the metals and facilitate a cradle-to-cradle (infinite loop) approach.
The ultimate goal is to meet sustainability goals and deploy technologies/best practices that reduce dependency on primary ores. Unless that is done, partial recovery of metals or export of black powder (crushed battery waste) for recovery will continue.
The yawning gap between technology readiness that addresses both sustainability and safety issues in LIBs cannot be solved overnight. A strong collaboration among technologists, policy-makers, and governments is required to help manage the ‘EV revolution. Unless this is done, it will be a bumpy ride, which because of sheer scale will leave a large negative impact on the journey towards a safe and sustainable future.