In a significant step towards achieving a cleaner and greener future, several states in the US have introduced new mandates that aim to accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles (EVs), reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and promote sustainable transportation options. These mandates promise to significantly reduce greenhouse gases generated by the transportation sector, which is currently responsible for 28 percent of all US emissions. They’re crucial to combating climate change as well as meeting national and international climate targets, and will also have a positive impact on public health.
The Dangers of Lithium-Ion Batteries
Such a drastic shift comes with challenges, particularly when it comes to the batteries needed to power both passenger and commercial vehicles. Over the last 30 years, lithium-ion batteries have become the dominant power source for a wide range of devices, from smartphones and laptops to electric vehicles and renewable energy storage systems.
While lithium-ion batteries offer a good balance of power, energy, and weight, they come with potential dangers. Lithium-ion batteries contain two electrodes (anode and cathode), a liquid electrolyte, and a separator, a semi-permeable barrier that isolates the anode and cathode from each other. If the separator is punctured or damaged, the anode and cathode can make direct contact, allowing electrons to flow between them unimpeded. This sudden spike in electrical current generates heat, which can ignite the flammable electrolyte.
Once it enters an uncontrolled, self-heating state (known as thermal runaway), a battery can vent flammable hydrocarbons and toxic gases, including hydrogen fluoride and carbon monoxide. The fires burn so hot and so fast that they can be extremely difficult to extinguish, and the smoke produced can contain other gases including hydrogen cyanide and hydrogen chloride.
Statistically, EVs catch fire at a much lower rate than ICE vehicles. However, EV fires are much more dangerous and difficult to extinguish, and batteries can reignite hours (or even days) after a fire appears to be completely over. The car’s battery pack must be fully cooled to prevent reignition, and best practices for responding to EV fires aren’t yet settled. Some suggest using chemical extinguishers, which will quench a blaze but not stop thermal runaway, and others recommend just letting the fires burn out, releasing toxic fumes in the process.
Supply Chain Woes
Several of the metals used in lithium-ion batteries are classified by the US as critical minerals, meaning they have high economic importance but rely on supply chains that are easily destabilized or disrupted.
Cobalt ore, for example, is highly concentrated in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where as many as 40,000 children as young as six years old are involved in the mining process—many in forced labor situations. That ore is then sent to China for processing. Most of the lithium used in batteries originates in Australia, Chile and Argentina and is also sent to China, where more than 80% of lithium refining takes place.
Neither the US or EU have the mining or manufacturing infrastructure necessary for battery self-sufficiency, making them dependent on other countries for both raw materials and finished batteries. This presents a huge problem for the US as the country most reliant on car transportation, especially if other countries enact tariffs, embargos or other actions that affect battery prices and/or availability. Other issues such as military actions (as currently seen in Ukraine) can also prove indirectly disruptive.
Lithium-ion material supply is another issue facing the US and EU. More EVs require more lithium, nickel, cobalt and graphite, which means new mines will need to be opened—a process that can take up to ten years before the first metals come out of the ground.
Alternative Chemistries Are the Solution
The issues predicted to arise from the increased usage of lithium-ion batteries need to be addressed and mitigated, if not solved completely, in the immediate future. While researchers are working to prevent thermal runaway through development of new batteries with solid electrolytes, and automakers are shifting towards slightly-less-flammable lithium iron phosphate chemistries, these approaches don’t completely eliminate the risk.
Instead, new alternative battery chemistries are going to play a major role in the future of mobility, leveraging widely-available metals and other materials with robust, established supply chains in North America. These alternative batteries have the potential to simultaneously reduce the environmental impact of battery production, improve domestic self-sufficiency, and support the domestic economy. Sodium-ion batteries are being considered as one potential option; the US has the raw materials needed to produce them in high quantities, but low energy densities and flammable electrolytes prevent them from being an ideal solution.
The good news is that startups across the country are working as we speak to develop completely new chemistries that can offer the performance of lithium-ion but with reduced cost and risk. These technologies are going to provide the safer and cleaner option to powering EVs, enabling the proliferation of electric transportation options by 2030 that the US intends to achieve.
Some of these companies are still working in secret, waiting for the right time to emerge. Others, such as Alsym Energy, are working toward large-scale production in the next few years. While lithium-ion batteries are unlikely to disappear completely (especially in high-performance cars) the good news is that automakers will soon have more options available that will make cars safer, cheaper, and less reliant on fragile supply chains.
Mukesh Chatter is the CEO of Alsym Energy, a technology company developing a low-cost, high-performance rechargeable battery chemistry that is free of lithium and cobalt.