It’s one of the paradoxes of the energy transition: while, on the one hand, green energy solutions provide an answer to the escalating climate crisis, these innovations often create new environmental challenges of their own.

One of the reasons is that industries only learn to be sustainable over time as structures are gradually put in place to support recycling and circularity. Newer markets, like the fast-emerging LI-ion battery segment, are playing catch-up. Indeed, research by Friends of the Earth shows that only 5% of Li-ion batteries used throughout the European Union are recycled. This not only means wasted materials, but also potentially harmful emissions as the discarded product decays.

Battery production can have other knock-on effects, too. As global demand for battery raw materials grows, reports of environmental damage linked to lithium and cobalt extraction have become increasingly common. The production stage can add to this growing footprint: in February 2020, German courts blocked electric vehicle (EV) leader, Tesla, from clearing woodland to make space for the company’s new Li-ion battery and EV subassembly “Gigafactory” outside Berlin, following protests by environmental groups.

A simple, circular solution

Of the different sustainability puzzles facing the industry, closing the battery circularity gap may be easiest to solve. Finland-based clean energy company, Fortum, has revealed plans to radically improve the recycling rate for EV batteries, thanks to an innovative hydrometallurgical process for retrieving cobalt, manganese and nickel and lithium from used batteries.

When it comes to circularity, reusing old batteries may be an even lower hanging fruit. Li-ion batteries reportedly retain up to 70% of their power-generating capacity when they stop being good enough for EV use, making them highly suitable for less demanding applications, such as household battery storage. Resourceful organizations are finding new ways to give (semi) used batteries a second life. Dutch airport operator, Schiphol Group, plans to start repurposing old batteries from other vehicles for use in its electric ground power units (E-GPUs) as it works toward long-term circularity targets.

Elsewhere in the value chain, battery manufacturers also have an important role to play. Circularity only works if the original product is designed for long-term performance – and it leaves the production with its safety and durability assured.

At Malvern Panalytical, we can support the entire supply chain with solutions for environmental impact measurement, large scale land and resource measurements, mining, exploration, water pollution and water treatment, metals and raw materials extraction, refinement, and recycling. Within the battery manufacturing community, we help manufacturers to ensure long-term usage of their products with our range of research, testing, and quality assurance solutions. By giving customers the tools to drive long-term performance, we are playing our own part in reducing the environmental footprint of modern battery production, widening the path to a brighter energy future. Like any industry, the battery market needs time to reach peak sustainability, but together, we’ll get there!

Stayed tuned for further discussions about the future of the battery industry on Materials Talks.

Interested to know how our solutions enable up-to-date battery manufacturing? Why not attend our next FREE webinar about two critical parameters which influence battery performance: primary particle size and crystalline phases of the electrode materials. We will show how these parameters can be extracted from data collected using X-ray diffractometry. Or contact one of our experts.

Further reading: