The adoption of new processes and exploitation of low-cost precursors will be essential in the effort to improve the sustainability of battery technologies, writes Dr Matt Boot-Handford.

The rapid growth in renewable energy generation and electric vehicles is driving a global need for more efficient, cheaper, higher-capacity and more sustainable energy storage solutions. While a large part of this growth has been facilitated by continued improvements in the performance of lithium-ion batteries, concerns around cost, storage capacity, safety and the sustainability of current lithium-ion battery technology will inevitably start to limit this growth. The development of advanced materials for lithium-ion batteries that deliver superior performance and safety at lower cost while at the same time reducing the environmental and social impacts will be imperative.

The sustainability of the products we use is becoming increasingly more important to a better informed and more environmentally and socially aware global population. The development of smarter and more resilient cities will rely on electrical energy storage solutions to power a low-carbon electric transport system, as well as balancing the supply of renewable energy to match commercial and domestic demand.

Avicenne Energy, in its most recent (2019) analysis of the rechargeable battery market, reported that 61% of lithium-ion batteries on the market in 2018 had a cobalt-containing cathode. For the period 2018-30, it predicts demand for active cathode materials will grow by around 380% from 350,000 tonnes in 2018 to 1,670,000 tonnes in 2030 with the market share of cobalt containing cathode chemistries expected to increase to 95% over this period.

This increase will be driven by growth in demand for EVs, which prefer cobalt and nickel containing cathode chemistries such as NCM (nickel-cobalt-manganese), or NCA (nickel-cobalt-alumina) in the case of Tesla.

While lithium-ion batteries incorporating cobalt containing cathodes will almost certainly remain the preferred configuration for many EVs, portable electronics and power tools manufacturers over the coming years, there exists significant uncertainty around the reliability of supply, cost and provenance of cobalt that needs to be overcome to meet demand from this rapidly growing market.

A cleaner cobalt

The widely reported ethical and environmental concerns are further driving the industry towards reducing its reliance on cobalt, fuelling the development of alternative, high performance and safer lithium-ion battery chemistries. The establishment of new precursor supply chains for cobalt and other critical battery minerals from countries such as Australia, where supply chain provenance is tracked, transparent and traceable, will also be essential.

In Australia, there is a significant and concerted effort involving government, academic and industry partners focused on kick-starting a sustainable, whole-of-chain advanced battery manufacturing industry, exemplified by the recently announced Future Batteries Industries Cooperative Research Centre (FBI-CRC).

The FBI-CRC, in which Calix is engaged as a key participant, is a $135 million six-year research program funded by the Australian government’s Commonwealth Department of Industry and Science, and industry partners. It aims to bring together global industry and Australia’s foremost researchers to improve the competitiveness and sustainability of Australian energy storage systems and grow the industry to meet increasing global demand.

The Commonwealth Department of Industry and Science has also funded the $9.4 million Cooperative Research Centre Project (CRC-P) for Advanced Hybrid Batteries, which Calix leads, is aimed at developing low-cost, sustainable fast charging pouch cells featuring electrode materials manufactured by Calix.

Calix is also involved in the Australian Research Council (ARC) funded Industrial Transformation Training Centre for Future Energy Storage Technologies (storEnergy) headed up by Deakin University and the EU-funded industry training network Polystorage.

In addition, Calix has recently launched its $2.7 million BATMn reactor for producing advanced battery materials in Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, which was part-funded through the Australian Government’s Advanced Manufacturing Growth Fund.6 The BATMn reactor provides a key Australian facility for producing low-cost, high performance and sustainable battery materials.

The adoption of new manufacturing processes such as the Calix Flash Calcination technology as well as the exploitation low cost precursors will be essential in the effort to continue to drive down the costs and improve the sustainability of lithium and post-lithium ion battery materials and technologies.

Dr Matt Boot-Handford is head of battery and catalyst R&D at Calix.