People are excited about batteries, from electric cars to Tesla’s 129-megawatt-hour energy storage project in South Australia. But one important issue is often overlooked: the raw materials needed to build this technology. Where do they come from, and what is the environmental cost?
New types of batteries, such as vanadium ‘flow batteries’, still lag in comparison with the performance of lithium-ion ones (as used by Tesla). Other technologies face significant hurdles before they can be commercially available.
This means that, for now, demand for lithium-ion batteries for use in portable electronics, hybrid vehicles and electric tools will only grow. Lithium demand for batteries is forecast to drive more than a doubling in total lithium demand by 2025.
This demand has led to enthusiastic investment, first in lithium and more recently in the electrode materials required for these batteries, including graphite, nickel and cobalt.
We need to think carefully about the security of the sources of lithium-ion battery materials, as well as the environmental impact of their extraction.