The United States and the civilized world have another weapon against Russia for its unprovoked war on Ukraine: nickel. This is a critical element that goes inside of the batteries used in electric vehicles and for grid balancing. Russia is the world’s third-largest supplier of nickel.
But this gets to a broader point: the minerals used for today’s battery storage devices are coming from places that may not be friendly to democratic values. Lithium, cobalt, graphite, and manganese are among the other raw materials. Can nickel be purchased from less hostile countries? Is it feasible to recycle those raw materials? And what technologies are on the horizon to replace the prevailing lithium-ion battery?
According to Stephanie Shaw, a technical executive for EPRI, the decision on whether to recycle the raw materials or import them must consider all of the “externalities” tied to mining and shipping, which have greenhouse gas implications. And the current supply chain disruptions must also figure into that tabulation. “Whenever that cost-benefit analysis is done, it has to include all of those costs over the material’s life cycle.
“When recycling, there’s the actual extraction of the material and the treatment of the material,” says Shaw, at a webinar hosted by the United States Energy Association, in which this reporter was a panelist. “Battery recycling vendors have been able to substantially enhance the efficiency of these processes and create much higher product purity. This widens the ability to go into a different range of products. It changes the whole economics of recycling.”
Historically, lithium-ion technology uses cobalt — an element that is difficult to mine and one that can lead to “thermal runaway” or fires. But the technology has greater density and allows more energy to be stored. It’s not just used for electric vehicles and grid balancing. It’s also used for cell phones that can quickly run down.
To that end, there are competing battery technologies on the horizon. One is “solid-state” batteries that avoid lithium and use oxides, sulfides, phosphates, and solid polymers. They do not use any combustible materials, and they also have long lives — up to 400,000 miles for an electric vehicle. But they are more expensive than lithium-ion batteries. Elon Musk has indicated that this is the direction Tesla
“Lithium-ion is not the only game in town,” says John Howes, the Redland Energy Group principal. “Lithium-ion is very energy-intensive, but as you start to increase the energy density, you increase the risk associated with that. There is a lot of work that needs to go into it, and it’s going to take a while to get to that point” where lighter and more powerful batteries can work in electric vehicles.
Where to Plow our Resources?
“We should focus on finding non-lithium alternatives to address battery storage,” adds Eric Dresselhuys, chief executive ESS Inc. “From a cost perspective, the iron lithium battery technologies are probably the nearest term thing we can do.” Because of their reasonable cost, safety features, and low toxicity, they are finding markets as a backup power source for utilities and Chinese car markets. They do not use nickel that could come out of Russia — or Indonesia and the Philippines that are much friendlier to the United States.
Dresselhuys says that the United States will never be able to out-mine China and other emerging nations that lack rigorous environmental regulations. Therefore, this country should focus on building better and cheaper battery technologies — not on the exploration of raw materials.
The United States relies on China for cheap labor. Rare earths contain 17 minerals that must be separated, a dirty and labor-intensive effort. China mines 63% of all such minerals. But it nevertheless controls 85% of the processing — the step made to separate the 17 minerals from the rare earth rock. Consider that the United States still produces 38,000 tons. But that is sent to China for processing. Regarding nickel, Russia’s Norlisk Nickel is a major player.
But today’s mining techniques are environmentally benign, suggests Ned Mamula, an author and geologist. “Our country has almost all of these resources in abundance. We cannot, however, produce them on federal land because of certain permitting requirements. Unfortunately, you cannot turn on the spigot for these materials, which can take 10 years to come online.
“Our friends in Canada and Australia have much shorter permitting periods,” he adds. “We can identify other allies from whom we can import. To me, this is not a long-term plan at all because some of these countries have the same problem we do. The other thing we can do is look at recycling, and then the third thing we can do is look at what can be a replacement for some of these minerals and metals in the case of lithium.”
Easing the Bottleneck
To this end, President Biden just invoked the Defense Production Act to expedite and expand the supply of vital raw materials. By executive order, the federal government will call on private companies to produce more raw materials used in batteries. The panelists all concurred that this would have a negligible impact.
Battery storage technology will get ever more sophisticated. Consider that Ford and General Motors
“Demand is through the roof because of the clean energy transformation,” says Scott Aaronson, vice president of security for the Edison Electric Institute. “We have material shortages and manufacturing challenges because we are coming out of a pandemic. Chip shortages impact chargers, smart meters, and other components of the electric power system. Companies are innovating and planning by stockpiling whenever it is appropriate.”
He adds that the energy grid has already risen to the challenge of expanding its capacity to handle the influx of electric cars. And it will continue to heed that calling as more of those vehicles hit the road.
The low-carbon future is here. The trek now is toward net-zero by 2050. And with that comes more electric vehicles and battery storage devices that support grid operations — spawning increasing amounts of investment and innovation. For now, lithium-ion batteries that are mineral intensive are doing the job. But over time, they will improve or possibly get replaced by cheaper and longer-lasting batteries that rely less on imports from hostile nations.
2030 is a strategic point. The sooner we get there, though, the easier it will be to feed the clean energy beast.