This post originated from Urban Transport News.
The recent award of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry to pioneers in the field of Lithium-ion batteries was a great day for all of us seeking to reduce pollution and combat Climate Change through electric vehicle technology. The Lithium-ion battery has revolutionized the way we live thanks to its ability to power everything from phones and smartwatches to cars.
However, the very success of the Lithium-ion battery has resulted in a problem that has yet to be answered adequately, how do we dispose of the millions of tonnes of worn-out batteries that will inevitably be produced in the next few years?
Lithium-ion batteries are chemical-based, in that it is the chemical reaction of lithium upon contact with an electrolyte that generates electricity. These batteries can also contain high-grade copper and aluminum as well as cobalt, nickel and rare earth. Given the scarcity and difficulty in extracting many of these materials, recycling is necessary, yet it is expensive and costly.
Another challenge that comes with lithium-ion batteries is their propensity to catch fire. As battery use has grown thanks to the proliferation of personal mobility devices and phones so have the instances of fires caused by these devices, often when charging. These batteries are highly flammable and need to be protected, yet even a small crack in the casing can let in the air causing the cathode to catch fire. This problem is especially acute in tropical countries as humid air makes this situation worse.
The solution to these problems is not to disregard lithium-ion batteries. They will also always play a role and technological progress will inevitably improve their performance and our ability to recycle. Solutions are already beginning to bubble up. While we may find ourselves with a surplus of worn-out batteries in a few years’ time, the old saying ‘one man’s trash is another man’s treasure’ comes to mind.
One of the challenges of spurring the mass adoption of electric vehicles is charging infrastructure which is expensive to install. A solution to this is mobile charging stations – essentially giant, trailer-mounted rechargeable batteries. If we take the worn batteries from electric vehicles, join them together and mount them on a trailer then we can re-use these batteries to create a giant battery that can recharge other vehicles.
Many of these batteries, while they may not be adequate for electric vehicles, still retain enough storage capacity to act as a power storage point especially when combined with other batteries.
Another, even more, exciting innovation is the ultracapacitor battery. Unlike Lithium-ion batteries this technology is not chemical-based, ultracapacitors do not require any chemical reactions to function. The Ultracapacitors uses the surface area of the material as a dielectric to “cling” electrons to its surface, resulting in non-destructive discharge.
The ultracapacitors’ life can extend up to 50,000 cycles, 20x longer than today’s Lithium batteries, and they are able to be instantly charged which is a game-changer in this industry. Furthermore, the batteries have longer battery life and higher tolerance to low and high ambient temperatures, -20 to +60 degrees Celsius, without any loss of energy.
They are also safer. Typically, EVs are categorized as Low voltage (<60V) and High voltage (>60V) Electric vehicles. Higher voltage systems require special measures to ensure human safety. However, low voltage systems do not pose such personal hazards and need no special gears for maintenance. Handling high current systems with ultracapacitors is comparatively easier than handling high voltage systems when it comes to safety by using passive safety devices like fuses, which cuts off during high current discharges or active functions like short circuit detection.
Ultracapacitor Battery technology already exists and is already in use in electric vehicles in India and beyond. The lithium-ion battery has played a vital and important role in enabling a cleaner future, yet it is time we explored other options to power our pollution-free future.