Cobalt helps make lithium batteries suitable for use in the automotive sector. However, the majority of the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where mining operations are linked to both environmental and human-rights abuses. Next year, battery manufacturers will be working to reduce the amount of cobalt in their lithium cells or turning towards cobalt-free chemistries, such as lithium iron phosphate, which is prevalent in stationary-power applications. We will also see them trialling alternative battery chemistries, such as sodium ion, which are attractive options for large-scale applications due to their low cost and absence of controversial materials.
As part of a greater emphasis on the circular economy, we will also see the commercialisation of battery-passporting technology, which will enable better auditability and traceability of battery components. This will allow manufacturers to guarantee with confidence that their battery offerings are either cobalt-free or that they contain cobalt that has been ethically sourced. This passporting technology will also enable manufacturers and consumers to track how much of a battery has been repurposed, remanufactured or recycled by the time it reaches the end of its useful life.
End-of-life of battery waste is fast becoming one of the biggest issues the industry needs to tackle when it comes to lithium batteries, second only to thermal runaway events, where out-of-control increases in battery temperature can lead to fires. Next year, manufacturers will be exploring alternatives to spot-welding technology and other permanent-assembly techniques, which will enable batteries to be recycled more easily.
2021 experienced a big growth in advocacy for “right to repair” in technologies, and battery manufacturers will have to respond accordingly. Consumers are increasingly insisting on this right, and governments around the world are introducing legislation that requires e-waste (including batteries) to be properly repurposed, remanufactured or recycled. In 2022, more than 75 per cent of the world’s population is likely to be affected by such legislation, which will have a significant impact on carbon equivalents released into the atmosphere.
In 2022, batteries will be different because – for the first time – real consideration will be given to alternative chemistries and end-of-life reusability. This will be a turning point for the industry, helping to make batteries greener overall.