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Climate change and energy

Want to know where batteries are going? Look at their ingredients. 

Lithium and other key metals are shaping the future of battery technology.

A lithium mine supervisor stands on a gangplank to inspect an evaporation pond of yellow lithium-rich brine
John Moore/Getty Images

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I was chatting with a group recently about which technology is the most crucial one to address climate change. With the caveat that we’ll definitely need a whole host of solutions to truly tackle the challenge, my personal choice would have to be batteries. 

This might not be a surprise, since I'm almost constantly going on about batteries—If you want to read more on the topic, we've got loads to choose from on the site. You can start herehere or here.

Batteries are going to transform transportation and could also be key in storing renewables like wind or solar power for times when those resources aren’t available. So in a way, they’re a central technology for the two sectors responsible for the biggest share of emissions: energy and transportation. 

And if you want to understand what’s coming in batteries, you need to look at what's happening right now in battery materials. The International Energy Agency just released a new report on the state of critical minerals in energy, which has some interesting battery-related tidbits. So for the newsletter this week, let’s dive into some data about battery materials. 

So what’s new with battery materials?

This probably isn’t news to you, but EV sales are growing quickly—they made up 14% of global new vehicle sales in 2022 and will reach 18% in 2023, according to the IEA. This global growth is one of the reasons we here at MIT Technology Review put “the inevitable EV” on our list of breakthrough technologies this year. 

Add to the steady market growth the fact that around the world, EV batteries are getting bigger. That’s right—not just in the US, which is infamous for its massive vehicles. The US still takes the cake for the largest average battery capacity, but the inflation of battery size is a worldwide phenomenon, with both Asia and Europe seeing a similar or even more dramatic jump in recent years. 

Add up the growing demand for EVs, a rising battery capacity around the world, and toss in the role that batteries could play for storage on the grid, and it becomes clear that we’re about to see a huge increase in demand for the materials we need to make batteries. 

Take lithium, one of the key materials used in lithium-ion batteries today. If we’re going to build enough EVs to reach net-zero emissions, lithium demand is going to increase roughly tenfold between now and 2040. Lithium is one of the most dramatic examples, but other metals, like copper and nickel, are also going to be in high demand in the coming decades (you can play around with the IEA’s data explorer for yourself here).

We’re not going to run out of any of the materials we need to generate renewable energy, as I wrote earlier this year. Batteries could be a tighter scenario, but overall, experts say that we do have enough resources on the planet to make the batteries we need. And as battery recycling ramps up, we should eventually get to a place where there’s a stable supply of materials from old batteries. 

But we’ve already started to see what dramatic increases in material demand can mean in the short-term for the battery market. Recently, prices for lithium and some other metals have seen huge spikes as battery manufacturers scrambled to meet the immediate demand. That caused prices for lithium-ion batteries to increase last year for the first time ever. 

What does all this mean? 

So we’re seeing huge demand increases that are only going to continue, and while there are enough materials in the long term, there could be some short-term scrambles for purified and processed battery materials. That’s going to shape the battery world going forward, and there are a couple of ways that could play out: 

First, automakers are going to get even more involved with the raw materials they need to make batteries. Their business depends on having these materials consistently available, and they’re already making moves to secure their own supply. 

As of 2023, all but one of the world’s top 10 EV makers have signed some sort of long-term offtake deal to secure raw materials. Five have invested in mining, five have invested in refining, and almost all those deals have happened since 2021. 

Supply constraints will also push new innovation in batteries. 

We’ve already seen the start of this: cobalt has been a crucial ingredient in cathodes for lithium-ion batteries for years. But the metal has come under scrutiny because its mining has been linked extensively to forced and child labor. 

In recent years tech giants and EV makers have started making pledges to use only responsibly mined cobalt. And at the same time, battery makers started turning to chemistries that contain less cobalt, or even cut out the metal entirely, partly in an effort to cut costs. 

Lithium iron phosphate batteries don’t contain any cobalt, and they’ve grown from a small fraction of EV batteries to about 30% of the market in just a few years. Low-cobalt options have also gained traction just since 2019. 

I think we’re going to keep seeing new, exciting options in the battery world, in part because of these materials constraints. Iron-based batteries could play a major role in grid-scale storage, for example, and we could also see more sodium-based batteries in cheap EVs soon. 

I don’t pick favorites when it comes to climate technologies, but I’m always watching the battery world especially closely. So stay tuned for more on the crucial role of materials for the future of batteries—and in the meantime, check out some of our recent stories on the topic. 

Related reading

I wrote in January about what’s next for EV batteries this year. I think my predictions are playing out pretty well so far. 

Lithium iron phosphate batteries could help slash EV prices, as I explored in February

I see a lot of myths around climate technology and materials—and I busted a few in a newsletter earlier this year. 

Keeping up with climate

There are record-breaking heat waves across the US, China, and Europe. (New York Times)

→ I wrote about the limits of the human body in extreme heat in 2021. (MIT Technology Review)

Speaking of heat, a group of scientists created an especially white paint that can reflect about 98% of the sun’s rays. It could help keep buildings cooler. (New York Times)

Among the most important components in many fusion reactors are the magnets. I loved this in-depth look at the role of superconducting tape inside the tokamak reactor that Commonwealth Fusion Systems is building. (IEEE Spectrum)

Diablo Canyon is California’s last nuclear plant and the state’s single largest energy source. It’s scheduled to come offline in 2025—but whether or not that will happen as planned is still to be determined. (Los Angeles Times)

Some oil companies are getting into the carbon removal game. Their involvement with the technology could make things complicated for its role in cutting emissions. (E&E News

The Biden administration is putting a lot of money into “climate-smart” crops, which could help pull more carbon out of the atmosphere and store it. But critics are concerned that we don’t understand or measure enough to know how well these plans would work. (Yale E360)

These companies want to replace polluting diesel generators with batteries. (Canary Media)

Low-quality batteries found in some e-bikes can be dangerous, and they’ve sparked several fires in New York City in recent months. The food delivery workers who rely on these bikes could use support from the apps that broker their work, like Uber and DoorDash. (TechCrunch

Deep Dive

Climate change and energy

The problem with plug-in hybrids? Their drivers.

Plug-in hybrids are often sold as a transition to EVs, but new data from Europe shows we’re still underestimating the emissions they produce.

Harvard has halted its long-planned atmospheric geoengineering experiment

The decision follows years of controversy and the departure of one of the program’s key researchers.

Why hydrogen is losing the race to power cleaner cars

Batteries are dominating zero-emissions vehicles, and the fuel has better uses elsewhere.

Decarbonizing production of energy is a quick win 

Clean technologies, including carbon management platforms, enable the global energy industry to play a crucial role in the transition to net zero.

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