Since their invention, lithium-ion batteries have been deemed the energy of the future. From powerful smartphones to increasingly more energy-efficient electric vehicles, just about everything these days is powered by a combination of lithium, nickel, copper and other, increasingly scarce, minerals. But it seems that, in our rush to escape the use of carbon fuels, we have replaced one scarce resource for another, with Tesla reporting that they believe global shortages of these vital battery components are on the way.
Why are these minerals in short supply?
While Tesla suggests this may be down to lack of mining investment, others indicate that supply cannot meet the current demand for the vast amounts of batteries we are now being produced – let alone future projections for battery use. Copper, in particular, has been underinvested in for years, while other ‘EV’ or ‘Electric Vehicle’ materials are also soon to be in short supply. That is without mentioning other issues related to these kinds of batteries, such as the toxicity of materials as well as their occasional propensity to catch on fire.
The primary issue is the potential for skyrocketing costs of the base materials found within lithium-ion batteries, a value that has been rapidly increasing in recent years as the technology has become smarter and less of a rarity. Of course, carmakers are not the only consumers of these materials – in-home technologies like the Nest or Alexa systems will likely consume as much as 1.5 million tonnes of copper before the end of 2030, based on research by BSRIA.
What this all suggests is that, over time, lithium-ion will no longer be the cost-effective solution it once was. As such, there is a race on – in EV manufacturing and general electronics – to find something better-suited for purpose; and that makes use of some of the cheaper and more plentiful materials that we currently have available.
Solutions to the mineral shortage
With companies like Tesla and others devouring vast quantities of ever rarer materials and simultaneously suggesting that those precious minerals will be running low sooner rather than later, the race is now on to find a solution to the lithium-ion problem.
One often-suggested option is the calcium battery. While anodes made from calcium had not been considered viable in the past, due to the lack of a suitable electrolyte, recent developments in Germany have made calcium compounds and top contender. Utilising fluorine compounds in combination, Zhao-Karger of Helmholtz Institute Ulm was able to produce a far higher conductivity than ever before – an excellent sign for the future of readily-available calcium as a battery resource.
Another alternative currently under research is the ideal of graphene batteries. These batteries could potentially be charged within just a few minutes, and have discharge capabilities that make them suited to EV and similar technologies. Graphene batteries may be a few years away from full commercial use, but offer another potential source of portable electric power.
Whatever eventually replaces lithium-ion, the upcoming shortage suggests that manufacturers and the public alike will continually be looking for affordable, readily-available alternatives should increased use of a particular power source lead to shortages. We have yet to see what the future will bring, but with so much R & D resources being spent on the search for the successors to today’s batteries there is no doubt that viable options will soon be widely available.