Addressing the Lithium-Ion Battery Shortage
Monday June 27, 2022. 03:15 AM , from Akihabara News
Akihabara News (Tokyo) — With the rapidly expanding need for renewable energy storage, the role of lithium-ion batteries has become vital. However, the manufacturing and widespread use of lithium-ion batteries has proven to be less environmentally friendly and economically efficient than once believed.
In Chile, the second-largest lithium-producing country in the world, opposition is growing to the negative environmental and social impacts which lithium mines have imposed upon local communities and habitats.
The process of mining lithium in the salt flats of Salar de Atacama, Chile, requires the pumping of large amounts of salty ground water from nearby lakes. This process greatly damages local habitats that are home to a variety of species, including flamingos, whose population is shrinking in the areas around the mines.
Furthermore, the copious amounts of water required for lithium mining has also led to water shortages in indigenous Chilean communities.
With a more progressive government coming into office, restrictions on the mining sector are expected to tighten, and this may in turn reduce the amounts of lithium exported to the world market.
This could become a major problem as Electric Vehicles (EVs) proliferate. According to the International Energy Agency, the number of EVs on the road in 2021 was triple that of 2018, reaching 16.5 million, and projections anticipate exponential growth through this decade and beyond.
Another metal required for the manufacturing of lithium-ion batteries, cobalt, is facing similar challenges.
Around 70% of the world’s cobalt is supplied by the Democratic Republic of Congo through poorly-regulated artisanal and small-scale mining operations that carry significant human costs, such as health risks and dangerous working conditions.
Furthermore, waste from Congolese cobalt mines pollutes local waterways which supply drinking water to surrounding communities.
Environmental concerns do not end at the damage caused by mineral extraction. Once the finite life of a lithium-ion battery expires, disposal poses a separate environmental threat, as leaking fluids from the batteries contaminate landfills and create fire hazards.
As a result of stronger environmental oversight and shortages of key raw materials, the prices of lithium-ion batteries has been rising, and this may continue in future years.
Consequently, the race is on to find solutions.
One possibility, backed by one of the Nobel Prize-winning inventors of lithium-ion batteries, Akira Yoshino, is to focus on recycling.
Currently, the global recycling rate for lithium-ion batteries is less than 5%, with Australia achieving a measly rate of only 2-3% in spite of being an advanced industrial economy.
While recycling may not be a comprehensive solution to the shortages–that may have to wait for technological advancement–it may go a long way toward relieving the immediate crisis.
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