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Raw materials: why Europe needs to ramp up its battery game

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By Claudius Jehle

· 4 min read

The demand for lithium is projected to increase by 2,000% by 2040 if the world pursues its net-zero emission targets by 2050 – a goal it must reach to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees. Likewise, cobalt consumption will go up by around 600%, nickel by 300% and copper by nearly 200%.

We use each of these materials in Li-ion batteries, which play an essential role in our transition away from fossil fuels. The global electric vehicle market alone is projected to reach more than €700 billion value by 2030, and it is entirely dependent on battery production. The supply of these vital raw materials can make or break our ability to meet our climate targets.

The metals in our batteries are not renewable resources

Reflecting the current increase in demand, prices for these metals are already rising sharply and are expected to continue going up. While analysts expect that production of all four metals could catch up to demand over the coming years, the prices reflect the fact that their availability is limited. And, of course, they are not renewable resources. If their use does not become much more efficient than it is today, a whole surging industry may face scarcity, volatile prices, and ever-larger global dependence.

The battery supply chain and industrial production must thus become more sustainable –and Europe can play a special role in setting standards that have a global impact: Standards for transparency in the supply chain, more environmentally-friendly extraction and mining practices, and – too long overlooked – for sustainable and efficient usage of these assets.

Measurement standards for batteries are out of date

Across the industries that use Li-ion batteries, the same end-of-life (EOL) criteria are still being applied that were first proposed in the nineties.

These criteria are not even set as a standard but merely became common practice. They apply solely to the battery’s residual capacity and, for instance, not on safety-related issues. This value is commonly referred to as a battery’s state of health (SoH). Largely unchallenged since still today, the EOL is thought to be reached at 70% to 80% of the new SoH. In simple terms: The maximum vehicle range has decreased to c. 70-80%. Such crude “catch-all” rules made sense in the early days of this technology.

However, if these criteria remain unchallenged, estimates suggest that at least 2 million tons of batteries will be discarded prematurely. The battery is already the most expensive wearing part of an electric vehicle and, as we have seen, contains non-renewable resources whose prices are rising. Clearly, we need closer scrutiny and more information to assess battery health.

To diagnose battery health, full data transparency is needed

An even larger challenge looms beyond battery health measuring criteria: lack of transparency. Even if improved and more sustainable criteria were agreed upon, there is no way today for vehicle owners actually to determine the SoH. In some cases, a vehicle outputs a value determined by the manufacturer’s self-diagnosis systems.

Believe it or not, electric vehicle manufacturing still has no standardised battery quality assessment framework or guidelines. Independent testing or auditing firms – such as in the TÜV in Germany or MOT test sites in the UK – lack the access or technology to determine the residual value or quality of batteries.

To get the most out of the metals and to drastically reduce our dependence on the new supply of raw materials, we need profound, non-discriminatory transparency. Europe must enable independent testing of batteries, including data sharing with customers and third-party service providers and standard interfaces (think, too, of Europe’s common PSD2 data-sharing guidelines in finance).

We can avoid wasting those 2+ million tons of batteries with transparency and decrease our dependence on raw materials. Users or manufacturers will be able to extract the true maximum usage from the battery in its first life, in the car, and then also in potential second life, for instance, as a backup power source for the electrical grid. After this, part of the battery’s raw materials can be recovered by suitable recycling mechanisms.

Collaboration: the basis for transparency and a sustainable industry

For the electric vehicle industry and the energy storage sector, it depends on collaboration based on transparency, and data sharing is the only path to true sustainability. And our success, both commercially and environmentally, will be determined by our willingness to choose this path.

Taking a position of leadership toward these goals now will ensure that the European market leads the world, as well, in producing the most sustainable and highest quality batteries and battery-run products – right as they become globally indispensable.

This article is also published on Euractiv. Energy Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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