Throughout the season, listeners have sent in smart questions about how technology will help us adapt. You’ve wanted to know stuff like: What happens to all those spent batteries? Is extraction the only way to get the metals we need to transition off fossil fuels? What about batteries that don’t require lithium at all?
For answers, we visited Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where a couple of scientists are figuring out how to build the better, safer batteries of the future. Kristin Persson and Gerbrand Ceder specialize in materials science, battery technology and energy storage, and are conducting their research on behalf of the Department of Energy.
There’s a reason lithium makes a good battery material, the scientists say. It’s superconductive, it’s lightweight. The price has come way down over the years, which means it’s relatively cheap.
“Lithium truly is king,” Ceder said. “The only problem left with lithium … is safety, and it’s not a giant problem, but it is a problem. And [the other problem is] earth abundance.”
By “earth abundance,” Ceder is talking about how available and easy to extract a given metal is. Lithium is abundant, but it still needs to be dug out of the ground, and as we know from earlier episodes, spinning up a new lithium mine is a controversial affair. Lithium-ion batteries rely on nickel and cobalt — two metals that are rarer than lithium and come with their own complications (cobalt mines in the Congo are known for human rights abuses). Lithium-ion batteries can cause fires that are hard to put out, though it is uncommon.
Persson and Ceder are working to identify and experiment with new materials for batteries. Sodium, for example, is salt and available all around us. Another possible combination: magnesium and calcium. These materials are promising, but Ceder and Persson caution it’ll take time.
“The average commercialization time of a new material is 18 years,” Ceder said. “It’s actually worse than drug discovery.”
And finally, what will happen to all the batteries once they die? We’ll look at a process known as “urban mining,” aka lithium recycling. We’ll visit a company hoping to extend the life cycle of lithium and eventually make extraction from the ground a thing of the past.
The first season of “How We Survive” is about the messy business of finding climate solutions. New episodes are out every Wednesday. Be sure to follow us on your favorite podcast app and tell a friend if you’re enjoying the show.
How We Survive Episode 7, “The Better Battery” transcript
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Molly Wood: Other than maybe sci-fi writers, one thing people are actually pretty bad at is accurately imagining the future. That’s partly because we get hung up on thinking that the situation we have now is the situation we’ll always have.
We’re imagining a future based on a set of circumstances that might be totally different once the future actually arrives.
Here’s a simple example: William Gibson, one of my favorites, coined the term cyberspace back in 1984, in a book called “Neuromancer,” and basically predicted the Internet. He imagined 3-D printers in 1999; even the kind of celebrity driven creator culture we have today.
But once, when I asked him about his super accurate seeming predictions, he sort of sighed and said they really aren’t that accurate because the one thing he didn’t see coming was smartphones. So none of his super futuristic novels of the 80s and 90s have iPhones in them.
What I’m trying to say is that the solutions you have now aren’t necessarily the solutions you’ll end up with – or at least not in that form.
This is where the layers come in, innovations piled on innovations.
Yes, we’re super focused on batteries right now, to electrify transportation and store and distribute energy. Batteries that need lithium, lithium that has to come from the ground.
Batteries, not hydrogen. Energy that comes from wind and solar and geothermal and not, say, nuclear fusion.
But even now, we’re iterating on those ideas. We’re improving them and inventing new ones and throwing away some old ones.
The future, my friend, is not yet written.
Molly Wood: I’m Molly Wood. You’re listening to How We Survive, a podcast about how finding solutions to the climate crisis is a messy business.
This is episode 7: The Better Battery.
When you start talking about electrification and batteries and lithium, a lot of questions come up.
In fact you, dear listeners, have sent us a lot of questions.
“Are there other ways to create batteries that don’t require so much lithium, or the other metals that are in batteries and even harder to get than lithium?”
“Is there a plan for what happens when a battery dies? Can we recycle lithium and other metals, so maybe ugly resource extraction could be a thing of the past? In fact, are there other ways to store energy that can be combined with batteries, or replace them altogether, at least in some industries?”
The short answer is yes, yes and yes.
And in this episode we’re going to do our best to answer those questions and imagine some other futures. Starting with a couple of brilliant researchers who are trying to figure out how to build better lithium ion batteries, and maybe get beyond lithium altogether.
Gerd Ceder: How about we walk you through the building and then sort of tell you a little bit what we do and then you can focus on things that you want to?
Molly Wood: Perfect? Love it.
Kristin Persson: OK, let’s start with this because it’s like it’s going to get more exciting,
Gerd Ceder: This is where the thinking people are.
Molly Wood: The thinking people?
Kristin Persson: Yeah, this is the theory part.
Molly Wood: Which don’t make great radio.
I’m among some cubicles with Kristin Persson and Gerd Ceder. They’re staff scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, conducting research on behalf of the U-S Department of Energy. These two specialize in materials science, battery technology and energy storage.
Kristin Persson: You have nothing to add?
Gerd Ceder: Nothing to add.
Kristin Persson: Wow. That’s unusual. (laughing)
Molly Wood: They sometimes work together, sometimes in friendly competition. And they’re married.
Kristin Persson: We have an interesting home life.
Molly Wood: They’re a power couple. They have great chemistry. Okay, I’m so sorry.
Kristin and Gerd show me around the lab where they’re designing and testing new combinations of metals and chemicals all day, every day, in hopes of building better batteries.
And this place is like everything you want a lab to be.
There’s a room full of super hot little furnaces
Gerd Ceder: This is where we cook the materials. You know, so this is basically a bunch of furnaces.
Molly Wood: This is the “Breaking Bad” lab.
Gerd Ceder: I know, this is “Breaking Bad.”
Molly Wood: There’s a wall of chemicals in little bottles…
Molly Wood: It is beautiful. It is literally cobalt.
Gerd Ceder: You should wear gloves if you touch that.
Molly Wood: Oh.
Molly Wood: and reminders everywhere that building a battery is sensitive work.
Gerd Ceder: This is what they call glove boxes.
Molly Wood: Picture that movie Contagion, or any sci-fi movie you’ve seen where someone has to interact with something very dangerous by sticking their hands into long black sleeves with gloves at the end, and then working inside a glass box that contains the dangerous thing.
In this case, it’s not because the materials are contagious or a deadly little alien – it’s that lithium hydroxide, the kind that goes into batteries, can’t be exposed to air.
Gerd Ceder: They have a protective atmosphere. They’re filled with argon, not oxygen, not air.
Molly Wood: What happens to the lithium if the air touches it? Oh, it degrades. It burns. Okay.
Gerd Ceder: If you took a piece of lithium out here in the open air, it would just spontaneously catch fire. It’s happened.
Molly Wood: It’s happened, it’s happened.
Molly Wood: Gerd is speaking from experience in the lab for sure.
And even once lithium is inside batteries, there’s a risk of fire if they overheat or if they’re dropped or punctured. This is why, for example, some airlines make you take the batteries out of those suitcases with built-in charging to prevent overheating, and electronics that come in the mail have warnings all over them.
Now to be clear, overall battery technology is really pretty safe. Fires are rare, but they do happen. Maybe you remember the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 had to be recalled in 2016 because of a handful of battery fires. Or more recently, the Chevy Bolt was recalled over that same risk.
All that is why the grad student we’re about to interrupt has his hands in those glove sleeves and safety goggles on.
Gerd Ceder: Now we’re going to distract you, right? So is that an electrode you’re making?
Student: Cathode materials.
Gerd Ceder: You can look over his shoulder,
Molly Wood: We peer through the glass…
Gerd Ceder: So he has a small sliver of novel cathode material that he’s trying to put together into a coin cell.
Molly Wood: He looks like a watch-maker, if the watch in question was a teeny tiny explosive.
But Kristin explains that this reactivity is what makes lithium such a good battery material, and part of their research is to figure out how to minimize the explosive part.
Kristin Persson: There’s a correlation between the safety and the voltage.
Molly Wood: She says nothing is completely safe.
Kristin Persson:You just have to, you have to have a balance between a safe enough cell, and engineering safety.
Molly Wood: The thing about a fire in a battery is that it starts a whole chain reaction situation that makes it really hard to extinguish. Bad in a phone; way worse in an electric car.
Kristin Persson: You start with one cell misfiring and starting the fire, and then the next one catches fire. So I mean, you don’t actually know if the explosion has already happened or is going to get worse.
Gerd Ceder: Yeah, but there’s been multiple incidents of fires that were put off and then started again. Right? There’s the famous, they tow it to the towing yard and it starts again because there’s some cell reaction still going on and that suddenly starts to heat up again. Right?
Molly Wood: One option for safer lithium batteries is something called solid state batteries.
Right now, lithium ion batteries are made with liquid, an electrolyte made of lithium salts and other materials that lets ions – the things that actually carry the electrical charge – move back and forth between electrodes that are submerged in the liquid.
Obviously, I looked this up. Thank you, science. Anyway, the liquid itself is what’s flammable.
Whereas solid state is sort of what it sounds like, the electrolyte is solid – maybe made out of glass or ceramic – that charged ions can still move through. That makes them less reactive, and they can store more energy and last a lot longer.
But no matter what state it comes in, battery tech right now does still all come down to lithium.
Gerd Ceder: So lithium truly is king, right? It’s moving so fast. It’s really good.
It’s super conductive; it’s lightweight. The price has come *way down over the years, which means right now .. it’s relatively abundant and cheap
Gerd Ceder: The only problem left with lithium right, there’s only two left is safety, and it’s not a giant problem, but it is a problem. And earth abundance.
Molly Wood: Earth Abundance, he said. Gerd says there’s plenty of lithium on earth. But as we’ve discussed, it needs extracting.
But that’s not the only blocker. Right now, lithium ion batteries also rely on other key metals — cobalt and nickel. And those metals are in shorter supply.
And they’re problematic for other reasons too. They’re mined pretty much exclusively outside of the US. Cobalt mines in particular are infamous for pollution and human rights abuses.
Researchers have figured out how to make batteries with way less cobalt. They’re trying to do away with both cobalt and nickel altogether. And of course, the ultimate aim is to figure out batteries that don’t require lithium at all, like…
Kristin Persson: Sodium or magnesium and calcium that you can literally dig out of the ground pretty much everywhere.
Molly Wood: These also don’t require cobalt or nickel.
But like all things, the speed of the research depends on the market. Sodium batteries, for example, are much less powerful than lithium. Not good for EVs, maybe good for grid storage, but power is what everyone wants.
Gerd Ceder: You know, I think in general, the industry is aware and frightened by the resource issue, but that is not the same as doing something about it. So sodium will have lower energy content, and today nobody really wants to trade in energy content, that’s the truth, right?
Molly Wood: As for magnesium-calcium batteries? Kristin says those are still many years away.
Kristin Persson: We spent, you know, 20, 30, 40 years on researching lithium and getting the right electrolytes and all of that. We’ve almost forgotten about all that work. We have to do the same for these guys.
Molly Wood: But if we’re trying to make huge revolutionary changes in how we use energy in say, the next decade – 20 or 30 or 40 years isn’t gonna cut it right?
Gerd Ceder: So research is too slow.
Molly Wood: There we go. Let’s talk about speed.
Gerd Ceder: The average commercialization time of a new material is 18 years. So it’s actually worse than drug discovery. And part of it is this long, iterative process of optimizing the material, scaling it up.
Molly Wood: Companies don’t want to do that work, Gerd says.
Gerd Ceder: We can’t expect the energy storage industry to just come in, “Oh, I’ll take your great idea on New York’s materials, you know, and we’ll work on it for 15 years and put all our money in, even though we might find out that in the end, maybe it won’t work.”
Molly Wood: So the next step in operation science – not fiction – is to try to speed up the actual research process with quantum chemistry calculations!
But maybe it’ll help if we think of it like baking.
Gerd Ceder: It’s like, you know, you make your cake the maybe the first time its not the cake you want, right?
Molly Wood: A lot of figuring out how metals – materials like the lithium and the sodium and the manganese and the calcium – are going to interact is a long tedious process of trying to invent a new recipe. This lab is trying to have computers simulate that process.
Gerd calls them self-driving labs. He says they’ve managed to speed up parts of the materials process, but that’s just the first part of the recipe. The literal ingredients, figuring out how it’s all going to interact once it’s in a bowl?
Gerd Ceder: That’s still a long process, and the only way to do this is just do experiments faster. We’ve been, you know, research has been done in the same way for 60, 70 years in the end, right? The equipment gets better and we get fancy buildings. But in the end, it’s people in the lab doing something, seeing what happens, iterating back and forth. And so by using A.I. and robotics, we hope to sort of accelerate that iteration very much or to take the tedium kind of out of the work and have the humans with the intellectual oversight.
Molly Wood: So yeah, there’s also a robot in this lab trying to figure out how to do some of those tedious manual tasks that are kind of a waste of the students and scientists’ talents.
The robots aren’t quite ready to assemble battery materials into coin cells, but the hope is that pretty soon they can at least stir the eggs into the sugar.
Gerd Ceder: The synthesis part is the part we are tackling first, which is robots will move potters, you know, mix them together, really put them in the open the furnace, put them in the furnace, take them out, put them into the fact manner. So we’re setting up a new lab where we can do this all, 24/7 in an automated way. And the important part is then use artificial intelligence to take the results and take the next step, right?
Translation: if robots can work all night, every night mixing materials together, testing the results, discarding mixtures that don’t work, trying several iterations of cake recipes. So by the time the people come in to start assembling battery cells for testing, the cake is ready to bake the first time around.
So a lot of future is being imagined here, but even these attempts at using the highest of tech to speed up this process basically amount to one robotic arm in a little room, successfully moving a cup onto a shelf.
Gerd Ceder: He’s picking up the Crucible and now putting it in the rack. Yes! Success!
Molly Wood: Yes, nailed it!
Molly Wood: So basically, the solution we have is gonna be the solution we use for a little while longer. And that does mean lithium, and even cobalt and nickel. And right now, that means extraction.
Because what if there are other ways to get these materials?
Spoiler alert. There totally are. That’s after the break.
Molly Wood: There’s this exciting new way to get lithium, that doesn’t require digging any of it out of the ground.
It’s called urban mining. Which is a fancy name for recycling. Ha, I know. But really, until now there hasn’t really been a system for recycling lithium. The other parts of products, sure. But not the lithium; that part was largely wasted.
Now, that’s changing.
Molly Wood: Do you see a version of a future where we hardly have to mine, at all, where extraction really can be extremely minimized?
Ajay Kochhar: I definitely do.
Molly Wood: Ajay Kochhar is the CEO and co-founder of a company called Li-Cycle – spelled L-i-cycle, L-i like lithium.
Li-Cycle is a Canada-based company that’s recovering and re-using lithium and other battery materials. Ajay tells me this is an industry that’s moving fast. Fast enough to eventually disrupt mining.
Ajay Kochhar: Eyes to the horizon, I mean, you know, when we work with automakers is to just give folks a sense of scale, maybe to help understand why that can be a reality. So today we’re, you know, 10,000 tons per year of lithium ion batteries being recycled to help quantify the number of EVs. It’s roughly about 20 to 30,000 EV equivalent that were recycled per year. And obviously it’s not. All full batteries is not all EVs, but just to give people a sense relative to the market. And we’re going quickly, you know, to a state where we’ll be recycling the equivalent of a couple hundred thousand EVs in the next five years. Their operations. But as we look out and we, you know, work with various groups, you know, they’re starting to also forecast through to 2040 and beyond. And all of a sudden, those numbers, of course, have a lot of zeros beside them. And so which makes total sense, right? If you’re deploying millions of EVs to this next decade, when they come back, you need to have their batteries recycled. It’s going to come full circle.
Molly Wood: Ajay says the supply chain for battery materials is complicated, and right now it needs multiple streams – mining, brine extraction, every possible way to get your hands on lithium and cobalt and nickel, but…
Ajay Kochhar: Nobody wants to be relying on the edges of the Earth for these critical materials long term. And so once it’s aboveground and a battery pack, the total intent here is to keep it in the chain and the enabler for that is technology. And over time, yeah, that will diminish the amount needed for mining, and that is the future that we’re working towards along with our partners.
Molly Wood: So at this point, I’m pretty sure you’re thinking what I’m thinking: let’s get a lab tour, right!? Yeah that’s what I thought.
In this case, I actually got a remote tour of a Li-Cycle plant in Rochester, NY from my perch in California.
Molly Wood: This is so exciting. This is really a radio innovation. I want you guys to know if this works. It’s going to be huge. I’m great. How are you?
Alan Ferguson: Good, good. We’re just going upstairs. We decided to go from the bottom floor up to the second floor, where all the equipment is.
Molly Wood: Got it.
Molly Wood: Alan Ferguson is Li-Cycle’s vice president of battery supply, and he’s giving me a video tour on Zoom. He’s a great cell phone camera guy, turns out.
Molly Wood: So what do I see?
Alan Ferguson: So what we’re seeing is the facility that actually will shred lithium ion batteries from electric vehicles, energy storage systems or consumer electronics.
Molly Wood: I’m looking at a big open factory floor. It’s new; the floors are bright and shiny.
There are all these containers, or drums. The kind of thing you see in movies usually holding something like nuclear waste.
These containers are filled with batteries – from cars, trucks, buses, energy storage systems, personal electronics, and even scraps like leftover battery material from battery manufacturers.
There’s what looks like a giant slide – actually, a conveyor belt – that takes the batteries into a shredder.
Alan Ferguson: Straight ahead is a bin chipper. But the batteries will make their way from however they were sent to us onto this conveyor. And then once they’re on the conveyor, they will move up the conveyor and into the hopper of the shredder.
Molly Wood: This machine can shred 5,000 tons of lithium-ion batteries per year.
The shredded material is separated into: aluminum, copper, plastic. That all stuff gets re-used.
And then there’s the special stuff, which is apparently called Black Mass. A weirdly ominous sounding term for a mix of the most important battery materials, like lithium, nickel, and cobalt.
The Rochester facility that I’m touring remotely is called a Spoke. These are like regional centers for processing large amounts of battery material. Right now, there are two of them, grinding down batteries into this black mass.
And that mass is destined…
Ajay Kochhar: The hub is where we transform that back into chemicals. So think of those chemicals like the bricks to the house. It’s probably the best way to think about like, the lithium, nickel, the cobalt. And that’s what goes right back into a new battery material again.
Molly Wood: And boom – Bob’s your uncle. Although this, like advanced battery materials research, is still a work in progress. The spokes exist, but the hubs haven’t been built yet.
Li-Cycle is building toward having 4 spokes around the US and Canada by next year. Twenty around the world by 2025. The first hub, in Rochester, will come online in 2023. All with the goal of building this better battery supply chain, so people don’t feel like buying an electric car is just another version of extraction, with a battery that’s going to go who knows where when it’s no good anymore.
Ajay actually comes from the world of lithium mining and extraction. He left about 5 years ago to start this lithium recycling business after people started asking, what does happen to all these batteries when they die?
Ajay: What really was the tipping point? In short, we found out that as you go through the traditional battery recycling methods, you lose a lot of the valuable content, including lithium. And for us, that was so silly. We’re helping these companies build these lithium mines and refineries. And then at the end of life, you can’t even recover the material. Well, that’s no better than hydrocarbons, right? So we said we’re going to have to do something here, left our careers, and here we are. Five years later at Li-Cycle, or 170 people now growing at a very rapid clip and more to come.
Molly Wood: Now obviously, EVs are still pretty new, so there aren’t a lot of spent Tesla or Chevy Bolt batteries to recycle. But, Ajay said, the process of actually making batteries generates – well, a lot of dead batteries.
Most of the materials Li-Cycle processes today are cast offs – recalls and scraps, basically. About five to ten percent of batteries don’t meet the standards of the industry, or are faulty in some way. This is what Ajay calls the “first wave.”
And the next wave of this resource – the “end of life” batteries – will be much bigger.
As more and more EVs hit the road, Ajay says there will be huge amounts of material to recycle in the next couple of decades, and it will be way cheaper to recycle than to mine.
To be clear, Ajay says, extraction and recycling are going to have to co-exist for a while longer here. It’s not like the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars that people are pumping into lithium projects in the Salton Sea or even Nevada, or other parts of the US, are going to be shut down.
Molly Wood: There’s a lot of attention on building this domestic supply chain. The economic benefits of tha…t are people going to lose a lot of money if everybody just recycles instead of digs?
Ajay: Well, I think we need both, right? And I think that’s where folks on either side can get a little extreme. I mean, I’ve heard people say that, yeah, never right, never. You heard some people say like, “Oh, we just need to recycle,” and I say, well, the atoms need to come from somewhere. And we’ll have a great source with the scrap to start, which is that five to ten percent. That’s good. So we can start to really come into the supply chain in greater quantity. But once it’s aboveground, then we can, you know, urban mine it all day, every day. Now, on the primary extraction side, you know, that needs to happen and it needs to happen in a clean way, the most efficiently we can. I think the latent tension here is those are long lead, you know, very capital intensive projects. I think in the world we’re in, the capitals there. I think there’s recognition that that’s needed to make this happen. But there are some things that just take time right, to explore and define a resource. It just takes time. And sometimes those timescales are not congruent with how demand is increasing. Nor is it congruent with how fast does it maybe take to build a battery factory,
Molly Wood: Right. So these things really need to develop in parallel, but there’s a point at which the lines will kind of intersect and start going in the opposite direction.
Ajay: Yeah, exactly.
Molly Wood: Now, there are a whole bunch of companies jumping into the battery materials recycling game. It’s expected to be a $24 billion dollar industry by 2030, about eight times as big as it is right now.
And people in this industry say the US could really benefit from some state and federal regulations around battery recycling, to guarantee and grow this market and basically force automakers to get serious about recycling their batteries.
Meanwhile, because of the raw materials issue, Tesla and at least one major Chinese electric carmaker have said they hope to transition to batteries that don’t use cobalt or even nickel in the future. But yes, they’re still gonna need lithium.
So what else is out there that we haven’t imagined yet? What is the William Gibson smartphone; the unexpected twist that shifts our vision of the future into something else entirely?
Well if I knew that I’d be writing cool books, but to answer some of those questions from the very beginning…
Yes, lots of companies are working on ways to deal with dead batteries and get valuable resources out of them so they don’t get thrown away and become toxic waste and to recycle what’s inside.
New kinds of batteries? Yes. The research into new battery tech is full steam ahead – from the new materials combinations that Kristin and Gerd’s quantum chemistry calculations are working on, to a promising new type of storage battery called iron flow.
At least one publicly traded company is developing batteries – made out of basically iron, salt and water – which it says can store renewable energy for up to 12 hours and last up to 20 years.
And new kinds of storage that aren’t batteries at all? Also yes. There’s the possibility of using hydrogen as both a fuel and for energy storage, as long as it’s what’s called green hydrogen: the kind that’s created by splitting water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen using renewable energy.
And not the kind that’s cheapest and most common today, which is produced using natural gas.
When it comes to generating the energy itself? Well, a lot of folks say we’re going to have to have some serious conversations about nuclear energy in the future. China is planning to build 150 new nuclear reactors to generate carbon neutral power over the next 15 years.
In the U.S., a company called X-Energy has gotten 160 million bucks from the Department of Energy for a next-generation nuclear reactor to be built in Washington State.
Then there’s the dream of much cleaner nuclear fusion. Tons of money is going into that these days, and apparently it’s getting pretty close!
I’m just saying, in the “Foundation” novels by Isaac Asimov – which you can tell were written in the 50s – nuclear power is miniaturized and available in everything from weapons to personal space shields to space ships, and it’s basically magic.
And as Arthur C. Clarke, author of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” says: “Magic is just science we don’t understand yet.”
The point here is that there are a lot of possible futures, as long as we’re willing to put in the time and the effort, and put our minds to the task at hand.
Next week, we’ll talk about how technology might be the easiest part of the equation when hearts and minds – and global capitalism – still need some convincing.
And if you have questions about any of this: the endless life cycle of lithium, the combustible lab materials, the batteries of the future? Send it all our way: email@example.com.
How We Survive was created and hosted by me, Molly Wood.
Caitlin Esch produced this episode, with help from Grace Rubin and Marque Greene.
Caitlin and I wrote it.
Editing by Hayley Hershman.
Scoring and sound design by Chris Julin.
Mixing by Brian Alison.
Sitara Nieves is our Executive Producer.
Donna Tam is our interim executive director of on-demand.
Special thanks to Catherine Winter and Peter Thomson.
Our theme music is by Wonderly.
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