Batteries are charging our planet, but what's the cost?

Batteries could finally end our dependence on fossil fuels, but they can have a hidden environmental cost. Our next challenge is finding ways of making batteries as clean as the energy that’s stored inside them.

06/16/2020 Copyright: National Geographic, Text: Charlotte Duck Photos: Harry WouldsAUDI AG, Unsplash Reading Time: 4 min

This content was created by and appears on nationalgeographic.com as part of the AUDI AG brand partnership with National Geographic.

Humanity’s increasing power demands mean that new energy-storage solutions fast becoming a global necessity. Under the premise ‘Electric Earth’ National Geographic is being engaged in this topic.
Humanity’s increasing power demands mean that new energy-storage solutions fast becoming a global necessity. Under the premise ‘Electric Earth’ National Geographic is being engaged in this topic.

The great green dilemma

There’s lots of excitement right now about our quickening shift to cleaner electricity. But, if we’re to truly make the leap to an electric future, there’s an important hurdle to overcome: we need genuinely clean batteries. While energy storage technology has come on in leaps and bounds, there’s still some way to go in order to lessen batteries adverse environmental side-effects. However, innovative companies are already taking steps to solve this important issue…

Is lithium what we’re looking for?

Lithium batteries are currently the go-to energy storage solution for makers of electric cars, phones, tablets, and laptops. And it’s easy to see why: they’re efficient chargers, easy to dispose of, and have a higher energy density than alkaline batteries. Dubbed ‘white gold’ by investors, lithium’s demand has seen its price double between 2016 and 2018 as battery makers try to get their hands on this silvery-white alkali metal. Even though there’s a whopping 43 million tons (39 million metric tonnes) of the stuff on Earth, only a third of it is in a form that can be mined; of that, 87 per cent is found in brine waters, mostly in South America’s so-called ‘Lithium Triangle’.


The production process for lithium, or more specifically lithium carbonate, involves drilling holes in salt flats and pumping salty, mineral-rich brine to the surface. This brine is left to evaporate, and the resulting salts are filtered so the lithium carbonate can be extracted. Although a very simple process, it uses large amounts of water and can be time-consuming – taking between 18 and 24 months.

Audi tests factory vehicles powered by used lithium-ion batteries from electric cars. After the batteries have been taken back, they can continue to be used sensibly and sustainably.

Audi tests factory vehicles powered by used lithium-ion batteries from electric cars. After the batteries have been taken back, they can continue to be used sensibly and sustainably.

Audi are among those looking for ways to make the production of lithium batteries speedier and more climate-friendly. For instance, valuable elements can be extracted and reused in new products at the end of a battery’s lifecycle; in some cases it’s possible that entire lithium batteries can be repurposed for a second-use, powering transport and factory vehicles. With this in mind, recycling of decommissioned batteries has become a major focus for Audi.

There’s also scope to increase the energy density from these batteries – therefore decreasing their size, and how much lithium is actually required – while also reducing the use of rare and expensive components like cobalt.

Tsuyoshi Hoshino of Japan Atomic Engery Agency’s Rokkasho Fusion Institute recently proposed another idea – a method for recovering lithium from seawater using dialysis – in the journal, Desalination. The system uses a special membrane which only the lithium ion can pass through. Though not yet ready to be commercialized, Hoshino says his osmosis technique “shows good energy efficiency and is easily scalable.”

Are graphene supercapacitors actually super?

While lithium production is being perfected, experts are championing alternatives, like graphene supercapacitors. Despite sounding like they belong on a spacecraft, these may help solve the earth’s energy dilemma. Instead of holding electricity as chemical potential – like alkaline or lithium batteries – supercapacitors store it in an electric field, similar to the way static collects on the surface of a balloon.

The addition of ‘wonder material’ graphene creates supercapacitors that are strong and light. Although it’s still early days, the graphene battery market is predicted to reach $115 million by 2022, with Chinese and Spanish companies using supercapacitors to power everything from laptops to electric motorcycles.

However, there is a very big ‘but’ to all this. Supercapacitors – even graphene ones – can’t yet hold a charge for long. Think how annoying it is when your phone battery plummets, then imagine the same thing happening when you’re in the car miles from a charging station. Not great.

Already today the Audi e-tron is being produced at the carbon neutral plant in Brussels.
Already today the Audi e-tron is being produced at the carbon neutral plant in Brussels.

Could we store clean electricity in an equally clean battery?

A battery that’s both practical and environmentally friendly to produce might seem like the Holy Grail, but in Delft, Holland, a group of innovators at AquaBattery believe they’ve found it. The Blue Battery stores power in – you guessed it – water, and could be used to stockpile all the eco-electricity the Netherlands produces, in a 100 per cent sustainable way. So how does it work

Passing an electic current through salt water splits it into concentrated saline and freshwater – a process known as electrodialysis – storing the energy at the same time. During the second discharging phase, the process is reversed and these two waters are combined, releasing the collected energy – which is then converted back into electric current with the help of special membrane stacks

It’s a simple, safe technique that has the potential to store huge quanities of electricity for use when needed –making sure a city’s power grid always has enough energy to meet demand, for instance. While the set-up in Delft is currently at a relatively small-scale, AquaBattery director David Vermaas has big plans; he wants to roll out his Blue Battery to places where saltwater and freshwater meet, like the Dutch waterways for example. The energy potential is enormous.

Lithium batteries currently offer the most practical solution to storing energy and are set to remain an integral part of powering a new generation of electric cars. But, in the next decade or so, you might find yourself recharging from a grid supported by Blue Batteries. With increased refinement, they are expected to offer a real alternative that will change our relationship with renewables. Whether it’s in generation, storage, or the powering of an electric vehicle, the hope is that one day, every stage in the energy journey will be 100 per cent green.

Dr. Leslie Dewan

Dr. Leslie Dewan

Dr. Leslie Dewan is co-founder and chief executive officer of Transatomic Power, a nuclear reactor design company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is developing the next generation of sustainable nuclear power plants. She received her Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from MIT in 2013, with a research focus on computational nuclear materials. Before receiving her Ph.D., Dewan worked for a robotics company in Cambridge, where she designed search and rescue robots and equipment for in-field identification of chemical and nuclear weapons.

Dewan has been awarded an MIT Presidential Fellowship and a Department of Energy Computational Science Graduate Fellowship. She is a member of the MIT Corporation, the governing body of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She was named a Time magazine “30 People Under 30 Changing the World,” an MIT Technology Review “Innovator Under 35,” a Forbes “30 Under 30” honoree, and a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader.

Battery recycling at Audi

Ever since it began to develop its first fully electric car, Audi has been concerned about vehicle recycling. As part of a strategic research collaboration, a closed loop for the components of high-voltage batteries was recently tested. The result: more than 90% of the cobalt and nickel present in the Audi e-tron’s high-voltage batteries can be recovered and recycled for use in new battery cells. This saves both precious resources and CO₂ emissions.

In addition, Audi is involved in various initiatives and campaigns with other partners for adherence to human rights and environmental legislation in the supply chain. Audi is also a member of the Global Battery Alliance. Among other issues, the Alliance focuses on social standards in the extraction of raw materials for batteries – such as the protection of human rights – and on solutions for the recycling of lithium-ion batteries.

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