Lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) are set to play a key role in the transition to a decarbonized world. They are one of the principal energy sources for electric vehicles, grid storage and many consumer electronics. As things stand, however, the way that we produce and manage LIBs over their life cycles is far from perfect – bringing environmental, economic and geopolitical concerns. In the latest episode of the Physics World Stories podcast, Andrew Glester looks at how we can make LIBs more sustainable, with a focus on activities in the UK.
The first guest is Gavin Harper, a metallurgy researcher at the University of Birmingham, a lead author on a recent LIB roadmap article in JPhys Energy. Harper talks about opportunities for improving LIB waste management and creating circular economies. For instance, batteries can be designed to make it far easier to reuse constituent parts, while smart grids can enable consumers to trade energy between electric cars, houses, and the grid. Harper tackles the big question: is it more environmentally friendly to own an electric car, rather than a conventional fossil fuel-powered vehicle, if you consider the full life cycle?
Local lithium supplies
Some of the most contentious issues with LIBs relate to lithium mining. Roughly 60% of known lithium reserves are located within the salt flats of Latin America, mostly within the “lithium triangle” of Bolivia, Argentina and Chile. The vast amounts of water needed for extracting lithium from brine deposits can lead to water scarcity, pollution of local soils and water, and disruption of local ecosystems. Meanwhile, China has surged ahead of the world in its capacity for manufacturing LIBs, with Western nations now keen to build up their own knowledge bases and search for local lithium deposits.
One intriguing possibility in the UK is to extract lithium directly from geothermal waters near the coast of Cornwall. Ali Salisbury, an exploration geologist at Cornish Lithium, joins the podcast to explain how Cornwall’s unique geology – lying on top of a large, fractured mass of granite containing lithium-rich minerals – is enabling this possibility. Cornish Lithium says the method could have minimal environmental impacts, and the company is also investigating more sustainable forms of hard-rock lithium mining in the same region.