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The importance of batteries to the future of electronics

A brief history

Batteries were first invented long before electricity was even discovered in the 1700s. Around the 1900s the first iterations of what would become modern batteries began to appear. Since then, the tech going into these batteries has improved dramatically, and other battery types are also in development.

Commonly used battery types

Lithium batteries are currently the most widely used types of battery. These are the most common for consumers to purchase, and come in AA, AAA, or 9V sizes. The cheaper alternative in commercial sizes is alkaline batteries. Both types are disposable, but lithium batteries last much longer.

Silver oxide batteries usually come in button form, the kind of batteries that are used for watches and smaller devices. Silver is an expensive material to use, hence why it’s only used for these smaller-size batteries. For hearing aids, the battery of choice is zinc air. These batteries react with the air, so require a small tab to be removed for them to function.

Nickel-cadmium (NiCd) and Nickel-metal hydride are just a couple of the other battery types available on the market. Another ubiquitous kind of battery is the Lithium-ion (Li-ion). These batteries are in most of your gadgets: phones, laptops, and other portable electronic devices.

Thanks to its low maintenance and high energy density it is usually chosen over other types of batteries like nickel-cadmium.

The rise of EVs and batteries

Li-ion batteries are commonly used in Electronic Vehicles (EVs) too. As the market for EVs increases at an exponential rate, the low maintenance li-ion batteries are a favourite among manufacturers. Companies predict li-ions will be the dominant technology for the foreseeable future, and the price was falling until last year.

NCM batteries, made up of Lithium, nickel, cobalt and manganese, and NCA batteries (nickel, cobalt and aluminium) are two current alternatives for Li-ion batteries.

But now, Lithium prices are increasing, and so are the prices of cobalt. Since Li-ion batteries and their alternatives have both elements included, the search is on for a cost-friendly environmentally conscious replacement.

One alternative that seems to be rising to the surface is the sodium-ion battery (Na-ion). As one of the most abundant elements on earth it is significantly cheaper and is easy to extract. Na-ion batteries can also be fully discharged, so there is no risk associated with transporting them.

Return of LFP

But Na-ion is not the only tech on the rise. Some EV companies have started using cobalt-free iron-phosphate (LFP) batteries, and are planning on increasing this amount going forward. The reason behind the usage could be to avoid the use of nickel and cobalt while there are supply issues.

LFP batteries first came about in the mid-90s, however early iterations were difficult to charge and had heat issues. Disposal was also an issue, which meant in the early years these batteries weren’t frequently used.

Efficiency is a sticking point when compared to li-ion, but they have improved enough for use in shorter-range vehicles.

Battery tech for the future

There are many different types of battery tech currently in development. This may end up being essential thanks to the finite nature of some materials currently used.

Some types also require lithium, like the new generation li-ion and lithium-sulfur batteries. Others, however, do not require lithium. Other varieties like zinc-manganese oxide, organosilicon electrolyte, gold nanowire gel and TankTwo String Cell batteries are also potential future technologies.

The need for high power density and longevity will only increase in the future as EVs become more widespread. Eventually irreplaceable materials could also become scarce. It is predicted that by the end of the decade many more battery plants will open to accommodate this.

Shipping costs are also an issue, so reducing the need for exports, and avoiding reliance on other countries, is imperative.

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A raw materials shortage is set to hit the EV battery supply chain in 2022

The automotive sector is on red alert amid speculation that raw material shortages will impact the EV battery supply chain in 2022.

The lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles use a combination of rare earth metals like neodymium, praseodymium, dysprosium, and common and uncommon minerals like cobalt and lithium in great quantities.

Bloomberg blew the whistle in July, predicting that raw material shortages for batteries will be the next big test after the semiconductor crisis.

Recent reports back this, with the global lithium shortage giving EV manufacturers pause for concern. Sky News reports the world needs four new lithium mines per year to make supply meet demand, but the pipeline doesn’t come close to meeting this requirement.

Some EV manufacturers are hoarding raw materials, and the world’s biggest electric car maker, Tesla, is moving away from cobalt to LFP chemistry because they consider cobalt to be the biggest supply chain risk for EV batteries.

The EV industry has a battery problem 

Most electric vehicles have a lithium-ion battery pack because Li-ion has a high energy density for its weight and can charge and discharge at any state of charge. The technology is proven, and manufacturing Li-ion batteries is easy.

However, the growing demand for electric vehicles is fuelling demand for EV battery raw materials like lithium, cobalt, nickel, manganese and rare earth metals.

The mines in operation today are not sufficient to make supply meet demand one year from now, which is a cause of great concern in the automotive sector.

Additional factors could confound the problem:

  • Price volatility in raw materials (the price of rare earth metals has exploded, moving nearly 50% higher on average since March)
  • Battery composition changes (while lithium-ion is the top dog today, solid-state batteries use a lot more nickel and cobalt)
  • Trade tensions between countries (China controls 55% of global production and 85% refining output of rare earth metals).

Making supply meet demand

Accurate forecasting is crucial to making supply meet demand. Manufacturers must anticipate fluctuations in the supply chain and make allowances for events.

For instance, no one can predict the next coronavirus pandemic, but a 25% drop in raw material mining output can be incorporated into forecasts.

Manufacturers might also like to look into alternative battery chemistries. As we mentioned before, Tesla is switching the chemistry of its long-range batteries to reduce dependency on cobalt. Other battery manufacturers can do the same to fortify their supply chains.

The downside to switching chemistries is it is only possible following extensive (and expensive) research and development. The world’s leading EV battery manufacturers won’t invest in this area without proof it will turn a profit.

EV battery recycling is another important future step. Swedish company Nothvolt made the world’s first fully recycled EV battery in November. Today, however, Li-ion battery recycling is not economical on an industrial scale.

Another option is limiting EV battery production, either in total volume or in cell volume (installing smaller batteries). With EV batteries becoming more efficient, smaller capacities might not be detrimental to range in the future.