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Dependence and scarcity: the problem with batteries

Written by Battery Competence Cluster-NL

Written by Battery Competence Cluster-NL

Electric cars, trucks, phones, laptops: the use of devices with a battery has been increasing exponentially for years and this will continue to grow for the years to come. Although electrical appliances and vehicles have a 'clean' image, the production of batteries is not necessarily sustainable since batteries are still difficult to recycle.

Batteries contain critical materials such as cobalt, nickel and lithium, and the way they are put together makes these materials difficult to recover. However, recycling is the not only problem: many of the more critical materials used in batteries have practical or moral objections. Cobalt, for example, is extracted from mines in Congo (a politically instable country) using child labour. Moreover, many of the critical materials are imported from China. With the expected exponential demand for these materials and geopolitical tensions, we want to be less dependent of raw materials extracted on other continents.

Action program battery systems

That is why a national action plan has been drawn up to make recycling and reuse of batteries smarter and better as well as to develop novel sustainable batteries, based on non-critical materials. For this, it is important to think about recycling in the design phase, recycling by design.

Moniek Tromp, professor of Materials Chemistry at the University of Groningen, is co-author of the action plan. 'Battery use is increasing enormously, mostly due to the energy transition: we need to move towards cleaner energy without CO2 emissions for mobility, like electric cars, trucks and buses, but also for longer term energy storage to balance the electricity grid. It is good to note that for a fast and efficient energy transition, we need a mix of solutions, depending on the application, like H2, batteries, and so on. Politics also play and important role: because of the unstable political situation, with the war in Ukraine, we have learned how vulnerable we are when we depend on other countries and continents for our raw materials and energy. Moreover, if you project how many batteries we will need in the coming years, you’ll quickly see that it is impossible to extract these materials, if you consider the current composition.'

Growth fund

As chairman and front woman, Tromp works together with the industry, government and knowledge institutes in the Battery Competence Cluster – NL.  Together with all stakeholders, she implements the national action plan and draws attention to the urgency surrounding batteries. 'We have also submitted an proposal for the National Growth Fund, a joint fund of the Ministries of Economic Affairs and Climate and Finance. The proposal focuses on recycling and reuse of current and future batteries, development of new, sustainable batteries, including the production process and the possibilities of stationary energy storage in batteries to balance the electricity network. We also want to set up a broad training program: we need specialists who develop sustainable chemistry for batteries, but also people who can assemble them.' 

"Batteries are a crucial component towards a fast and efficient energy transition."

Moniek Tromp, professor of Materials Chemistry at the University of Groningen

Renewable energy

Tromp sees many opportunities for batteries in the future: 'Solar panels and windmills are good energy sources, but this energy is sometimes generated when we don't need it. This can overload the electricity network. That is why it makes sense to use batteries to temporarily store this energy and then use it when the sun is not shining. Batteries are a crucial component towards a fast and efficient energy transition. We all use batteries on a daily basis, but there is still a lot to do to unleash their full potential, in terms of sustainability, stability, energy capacity and suitable application. That is what we are working on.'