What might the future of electric vehicle batteries look like?
Earlier this year, Li Xiang, the founder of the Chinese car company Li Auto, boldly claimed that electric vehicles would represent 80% of all new car sales in China by 2025.
As data from EY illustrates, a lot of this surge in demand is a result of consumers wishing to drive more environmentally friendly vehicles. While Electric Vehicles (EVs) are generally more sustainable than internal combustion engine vehicles once in operation, the picture is not so straightforward when the entire lifecycle of the vehicle is taken into account.
As a recently published paper from the European Commission explains, during the raw material sourcing and vehicle production phases of the vehicle's lifecycle, greenhouse gas emissions are actually greater than for internal combustion engine vehicles. Avery Dennison’s Territory Sales Manager Wayne Tranter explains that awareness of the wider impact of EVs is largely lacking among consumers, so the drive to become more sustainable across the industry is springing from other sources.
Ahead of The Battery Show 2023, we spoke to several experts to understand how the battery sector is tackling this challenge to ensure that the growing demand for EVs can be met sustainably. NAATBatts International Chairman Emeritus Bob Galyen explains that China currently leads the way in battery technology, due in large part to the government support, incentives, and tax breaks given to battery manufacturers, automobile manufacturers, and energy storage systems, which coupled with ample financial support and a huge available workforce put them in a position to surge ahead of the west.
This prominence may not be beneficial from a sustainability perspective, however, as estimates that the carbon footprint of batteries made by Chinese companies is between 100 and 130kg of carbon dioxide per kWh. This is especially problematic as the sector has made considerable investments in Indonesia to secure the supply of nickel, which has resulted in huge swathes of rainforest being cleared and rivers being polluted by waste products from the mining process.
To build a more sustainable future, northvolt's Peter Carlsson argues that battery factories need to be powered by renewable energy sources and that fully circular flows are created so that batteries can be reused, repurposed, or recycled rather than going to landfill. This move toward a more circular economy in the battery sector was the key driver behind the creation of the Battery Passport, which is due to come into force in 2027.
The battery passport aims to “convey information about all applicable sustainability and lifecycle requirements based on a comprehensive definition of a sustainable battery”, and to do this requires a reliable means of communicating that information. Lauri Hyytinen, Automotive Market Development Manager at Avery Dennison, highlights how RFID (radio frequency identification) technology can be an effective method for communicating information about each battery throughout the supply chain.
Hyytinen explains that RFID is now being used in batteries to identify the origin of goods, raw materials, and visibility for the new market. For instance, RFID tags could be placed on batteries to enable tracking during transportation on RFID-enabled conveyor belts. The attached tags offer unique IDs for batteries, which can be connected at each stage of production with information such as chemical components or manufacturing dates. This could then be extended throughout the supply chain to enable the battery to be tracked during production, usage, and post-use.
"To be truly sustainable it's crucial that we have a bulletproof, reliable database containing information about the batteries, the raw materials used, the origin of the battery, and other vital information so that they are easily accessible for people throughout the battery value chain."
- Lauri Hyytinen
Sustainable and functional materials
Martin Dolezal, Automotive & Energy Storage Marketing Manager at Avery Dennison, suggests that as well as providing reliable means of communicating information across the airwaves, the physical labels used to convey information can also be a crucial aspect of achieving a more sustainable sector. He explains that OEMs are looking for ways to decrease their CO2 footprint, and this extends to the way in which labels are used throughout vehicles.
For instance, label stocks are currently using 25-70% recycled content, which is equal in performance to those made using virgin materials. The aim in the coming years is to increase this to 100% and achieve full circularity.
"As well as facilitating sustainability initiatives, such as the Battery Passport, we're also working with the CMR regulations in Europe to reduce the usage of substances classified as carcinogenic, mutagenic, or toxic for reproduction," Dolezal explains.
"This ensures that we're helping OEMs be more sustainable at every stage of the process."
- Martin Dolezal
This sustainability also extends to the adhesives used throughout the manufacturing process. Avery Dennison’s Automotive Market Segment Manager, Andrew Christie, describes how pressure-sensitive adhesives offer a number of advantages over wet adhesives, not least that they require no further treatment to make them stick and can bond to a wide range of materials, including those difficult to attach.
This can be especially important when it comes to the need to reuse or recycle batteries when they reach the end of their intended life. The ability to disassemble batteries in an efficient and effective manner promises to greatly facilitate the second life of batteries and underpin the circular economy in the sector.
"True sustainability lies not in just using renewable materials, but in the reuse of existing resources,” Christie explains.
"By reusing materials like lithium, cobalt, and nickel in batteries, we can significantly reduce our carbon footprint and pave the way for a more sustainable future."
- Andrew Christie
Of course, the future of the battery sector remains uncertain, and the Chinese battery firms CATL and HiNa Battery both recently announced sodium-ion batteries that aim to make mining the raw materials for batteries cleaner and more sustainable. Similarly, Northern Irish transport firm Wrightbus recently announced the launch of a fleet of hydrogen-powered buses that aims to showcase the potential of hydrogen as a sustainable fuel source.
Mao Zedong famously requested that a hundred flowers bloom in a bid to progress in the arts and sciences. While that request largely fell on stony ground, the number of innovations under development to make transportation greener and more sustainable promise to achieve much stronger results.
"Amidst the changing landscape of electric vehicle manufacturers, it's hard to predict the future of the industry," Tranter concludes. "With most OEMs heading in different directions, there's an undeniable sense of uncertainty surrounding the sustainability of the EV concept. Could it be just a stepping stone towards something even greater? Only time will tell."
National Distinguished Expert
NAATBatt International Chairman Emeritus and CTO
SAE International Fellow and Battery Standards Steering Committee Chairman