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Lithium-ion and new frontiers in energy battery storage

Photo: UOW/Paul Jones
Photo: UOW/Paul Jones

Demand for lithium-ion battery storage is still strong despite the dangers – and expense – of its component parts. Fortunately, there is a growing stable of storage alternatives that could see our dependence on lithium-ion taper off.

According to University of Wollongong’s associate research fellow in battery R&D Jonathan Knott lithium-ion batteries at present are still being used in many possible applications and demand keeps “going up and up”.

They’re used in technology from iPhones to electric cars, he said, and the reason we rely so heavily on lithium-ion is because the technology has had a massive head start in improving the manufacturing process and streamlining the supply chain, thanks to a couple of decades of innovation and billions in manufacturing research.

Today, however,  the scarcity and high costs – financially, socially and environmentally – of some of the component material required to make lithium-ion batteries, has driven demand for alternatives.

One of these materials is cobalt. Around 60 per cent of the world’s cobalt supply comes from the mineral-rich Katanga Copper belt in the Congo. According to researchers at KU Leuven (Belgium) and the University of Lubumbashi, cobalt mining takes a high toll on miners, surrounding communities and the environment.

This is why alternatives to lithium-ion storage need to become commercially viable, and fast.

Other options starting to emerge

Mr Knott is part of a team working on a sodium-ion solution that will cost less than lithium-ion batteries, and critically, can be manufactured in the same plant.

The $10.5 million ARENA-funded S4 Project is heavily industry-weighted, he said. “We’ve had a firm focus on the economics/commercialisation side of the battery market, as well as the more nitty-gritty technical details.”

He compares the two battery technologies to cake batter. The ingredients to bake the cake are different, but they are still “baked” (manufactured) in the same way.

“Although [manufacturing processes] have been optimised for lithium-ion, they can be used as a hammer to crack any nut.”

This is critical because the new battery can be easily slotted into existing manufacturing processes.

“For other alternatives, the way they manufacture is completely different. So not only designing a new tech but new way of manufacturing this. This can be very difficult to do. It’s not just a core materials science problem but manufacturing and supply chain thing.”

The batteries will also be cheap because one of the key ingredients is sodium or common table salt.

Sodium batteries are not able to hold as much energy as lithium-ion, but their low cost makes them attractive for mid to large scale energy storage systems, such as for storing energy from solar power or wind farms.

sodium-ion battery

Photo: UOW/Paul Jones

Lithium-ion battery will still have a place in the future

He doesn’t think this new technology, or any new storage technology, will be the end of lithium-ion.

“In the future there will be more variety… for certain applications lithium-ion will also be good. Sodium-ion batteries will be appropriate for niche applications, which means we are no longer using lithium for everything.

“We’ll have appropriate solutions for each application.”

What else is there?

Mr Knott pointed to a number of other storage solutions in development in Australia that might feature prominently in a more fragmented storage landscape.

Another new option worth keeping an eye on is are gel-based zinc-bromine batteries. Mr Knott said the University of Sydney spin-off, Gelion, has been attracting a lot of attention and significant funding to develop.

Expected to be comparable in performance to lithium-ion batteries, the elements used in the production are more stable and abundant than the lithium and cobalt of lithium-ion batteries.

Innovations in storage are not reserved to new battery alternatives. Some companies are looking at ways to recycle old lithium batteries, such as Relectrify, a start-up based in Melbourne.

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