The electric revolution needs sustainable battery materials

Energy

To electrify many of the world’s vehicles in the coming years, the EV industry will need to procure a massive amount of lithium-ion batteries. And that will require brand-new sources and technologies to find, extract and process battery materials such as lithium, cobalt and nickel.

These materials currently are extracted from beneath the earth through mining. Sometimes that mining process is problematic for humanitarian reasons, as with cobalt, or for environmental reasons, as with some lithium extracted via evaporation ponds. Fortunately, the issue of how to find new and sustainable sources for batteries is getting renewed attention this year from battery giants, tech startups, EV makers, investors and policymakers.

“A major component of the renewable energy revolution is how do we get the materials necessary to do it,” says Kurt House, CEO of KoBold Metals. KoBold Metals is a startup that is building and applying machine learning and advanced scientific techniques for battery mineral exploration. The company is funded by investors Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Andreessen Horowitz and Norwegian state oil company Equinor. 

House estimates that to fully electrify the global vehicle fleet by 2050, the world will have to find over $4 trillion worth of new battery materials. “That is battery materials that we don’t know where they are now,” emphasized House. 

Once sustainable battery materials are found and extracted, batteries are highly recyclable and a robust circular battery economy can be developed to reuse and recycle batteries, House noted: “It’s a really deep distinction with fossil fuels that are extracted from the ground and burned. You can never get that carbon back in a thermodynamical way. It’s a one-time trip.”

KoBold Metals is building a database of information about the earth’s crust and using algorithms to mine that data to make predictions about the composition of materials under the ground in regions around the world. For example, while much of the world’s cobalt is found in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), KoBold is investigating a cobalt mining area in northern Quebec in Canada. 

KoBold Metals is just one startup using computing to tackle exploring and mining sustainable battery materials. Another new player is Lilac Solutions, which has developed a more efficient and faster process to extract lithium from underground brines. Meanwhile, Redwood Materials is a startup developed by former Tesla Chief Technology Officer JB Straubel that is taking scrap metal from EV battery production and using that for the raw materials of other EV batteries.

In addition to startups, big battery players are eager for alternatives to problematic materials such as cobalt. At the Consumer Electronics Show last week, Panasonic touted next-generation lithium batteries that will be cobalt-free and come out in a few years. Tesla and Apple also have been eager to slash the amount of cobalt in their batteries, and Tesla likewise has pledged to use cobalt-free batteries. 

Eliminating problematic cobalt mined in the DRC is just one battery issue. Mining giants, battery makers, auto manufacturers and energy companies will have to create an entirely new framework to source, extract and process battery materials sustainably and then take back older EV batteries to both reuse and recycle them. And a lot of financing will be required to help set these systems up. 

But circular and sustainable EV batteries — and the systems to support them — will be paramount to the electric revolution coming for both transportation and the power grid. 

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