Tag: battery energy storage

How to make batteries more sustainable

batteries in a recycling bucket

Batteries can be found everywhere: in our houses, in our cars and vans and even in the tech we wear. More than just being pervasive, battery technology has enabled a huge amount of technological breakthroughs – from the increasing distances electric vehicles can travel between charges, to being able to store renewable electricity for when it’s needed.

These two developments in particular – emission-free electric transport and grid-scale batteries that can power homes, businesses and cities even when energy sources are not generating – could be two key aspects in the transition to a zero carbon energy future. However, questions remain around batteries’ environmental impact.

What’s in our batteries?

The batteries we use every day are typically made from a mix of metals and chemicals such as lead and acid (as found in petrol and diesel-engine cars), or zinc, carbon, nickel and cadmium, which make up some of the batteries found in the home.

Then there’s lithium-ion. The go-to material mix for the rechargeable batteries powering mobile phones, laptops and, more recently, a high proportion of electric vehicles around the world.

The surge in the production of lithium-ion batteries over the last decade has led to an 85% price reduction, which in turn, has encouraged the use of these reliable batteries in electric vehicles and large-scale energy storage solutions. While this is a positive step in the development of rechargeable goods, it raises issues in the handling of spent batteries.

Each year around 600 million batteries are thrown away in the UK alone – even rechargeable batteries have a shelf-life. While recycling allows the safe extraction of raw materials for use in other industries and products, the majority of discarded batteries are left to rot in landfill sites. This can lead to their chemical contents leaking into the ground causing soil and water pollution.

Batteries left in soil

For batteries of any size to play a role in a sustainable future, an overhaul is needed in preventing harmful levels of battery waste. 

The battery problem

Although the number of batteries that are recycled has increased, currently the EU puts the recycling efficiency target for a lithium battery at only 50% of the total weight of the battery.

Connecting positive and negative terminals on a rechargeable lithium mobile battery

Standard recycling methods achieve this by separating and processing the plastics and wiring that make up the bulk of the battery pack, then smelting and extracting the copper, cobalt and nickel found within the cell, releasing carbon dioxide in the process. Crucially, these recycling practices do not typically recover the aluminium, lithium or any of the organic compounds within the battery, meaning that only around 32% of the battery’s materials can be reused. A lack of recycling facilities in the UK means spent batteries have traditionally been exported overseas for treatment, upping emissions even further.

It is not only spent batteries that cause a problem, the creation of them can be harmful too. For example, lithium mining can pose health hazards to miners and damage local communities and their environments.

In one area of Chile, 65% of available water is used in the production of lithium for batteries, meaning water for other uses, such as maintaining crops, must be driven in from somewhere else, impacting farmers greatly. There are also risks around contaminated water leaking into livestock and human water supplies, as well as causing soil damage and air pollution.

As a result, teams across the globe are working to make the production and recycling of batteries more efficient and eco-friendly.

Switching materials

Researchers based at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden and the National Institute of Energy in Slovenia, are developing an aluminium-ion battery. This type of battery offers a promising alternative to lithium-ion due to the abundance of aluminium in the Earth’s crust and its ability, in principle, to carry charges better than lithium.

Disassembling the battery from an electric vehicle (EV)

The reduction in material and environmental costs that come with using aluminium over lithium might mean batteries made with it could offer more affordable, large-scale storage for renewable installations.

While more research is still needed to reduce the size and control the temperature of aluminium batteries, researchers believe they will soon enter commercial production and eventually could replace their lithium-ion predecessors.

Elsewhere, IBM Research’s Battery Lab is developing a sustainable battery solution made predominantly of materials extracted from seawater, a composition that would avoid the concerns associated with the production of lithium-ion cells.

While the exact combination of materials in not public, Battery Lab claims the new concept has outperformed its lithium-ion counterpart in energy density, efficiency, production costs and charging time. 

Making good of the old

Along with advancements in battery development, new recycling methods are also reducing the environmental impact of batteries.

German company, Duesenfeld, is innovating the recycling of lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles through an innovative new process.

Batteries are first discharged and disassembled into their constituent parts. The metals are extracted with a water-based solution, the liquid chemicals evaporated and condensed, and the dry materials crushed and separated, ready for reuse. Importantly, Duesenfeld’s method avoids incineration, reducing the carbon footprint of lithium-ion battery recycling by 40% and enabling over 90% of the batteries’ materials to be salvaged and reused in new batteries.

Fortum, a Finnish energy company, is exploring a similar process, with the potential to recycle more than 80% of battery materials, including cobalt, manganese and nickel.

This year Fortum signed a deal with German chemical company BASF and Russian mining and smelting firm Nornickel to develop a renewable-powered, electric vehicle battery recycling cluster in Finland. The aim is to create a ‘closed-loop’ battery production and recycling system, meaning materials from recycled batteries would be used to make new batteries.

While it is clear there is a long way to go in reducing the environmental impact of battery production and recycling, continued development of both batteries and technology can pave a path for a cleaner, safer, battery-powered, zero carbon future.

Electric vehicle battery pack

EV fast facts from Electric Insights:

  • Electric vehicles (EVs) on roads in Great Britain – including EV vans – emit on average just one quarter the carbon dioxide (CO2) of conventional petrol and diesel vehicles
  • If the carbon emitted in making their battery is included, this rises to only half the CO2 of a conventional vehicle
  • EVs bought last year could be emitting just a tenth that of a petrol car in four years’ time, as the electricity system continues to decarbonise

The 182-year history of electric vehicles

If the rapid rise of electric vehicles (EVs) over the last decade tells us anything it’s this: the future of transport is electric. But while EVs may be the fast-growing future of mobility, their beginnings stretch right back to the days of the first automobiles.

Today we associate EVs with hallmark tech innovators like Elon Musk and his Teslas, but the original electric vehicle had a much more humble beginning – in a 19th century workshop in Scotland, owned by a chemist named Robert Davidson.

Realising the potential of electric transport

'Barking up the wrong (electric motor) tree' by B. Bowers, Proceedings of the IEEE 2004

‘Barking up the wrong (electric motor) tree’ by B. Bowers, Proceedings of the IEEE 2004

Using electricity to power transport has long made sense as a means of moving around quickly and efficiently. Robert Davidson of Aberdeen understood this as early as 1837, when he created his first electric motor – powered by zinc-acid batteries.

While Davidson was a chemist, he had a fascination with tinkering and engineering. Two years after creating his first motor, he invited visitors to his ‘Electromagnetic Exhibition’ where they could see a fully visualised electric model train capable of carrying two people at a time. He would go on to develop a prototype dubbed the ‘Galvani’, which he tested on the Edinburgh-Glasgow Railway in 1842, reaching a maximum speed of 4 miles per hour.

Davidson overcame the hurdle of finding a battery strong enough to power a full-sized train by using liquid chemical batteries rather than solid ones. However, when they ran flat, the chemicals had to be completely replaced. There was a further spanner in the works when railway workers destroyed his locomotive fearing the move toward electric vehicles would put them out of a job.

It wasn’t until 1884 that the first production-standard electric car capable of being reproduced and sold to the public was unveiled. The man behind this was Thomas Parker, who was also responsible for electrifying the London Underground.

His car was born out of a desire to minimise smoke and pollution in London, a purpose which still rings true over 135 years later. More practical uses for these vehicles sprung from Parker’s initial foray, with electric wagons being instituted in mines so their motors wouldn’t pollute the air.

The Parker Electric, 1890, invented by Thomas Parker

The Parker Electric, 1890, invented by Thomas Parker

The Golden Age

Mercedes-Electrique advertisement from 1907 © Daimler AG.

Mercedes-Electrique advertisement from 1907 © Daimler AG.

EVs came into their own in the early 1900s, when popularity in Europe and America surged. Unlike gasoline (at the time, petrol was the primary fuel source) EVs did not produce a strong stifling smell, nor did they require gear changes or manual effort to start them, such as using a hand crank.

It was during this period that many well-known car manufacturing names began experimenting with electricity. Ferdinand Porsche – founder of the eponymous sports car –produced an electric vehicle called ‘P1’ in 1898, before creating the world’s first hybrid offering, which was powered by both electricity and a combustion engine. Mercedes-Benz also offered up an electric model called the Mercedes Mixte, in 1906. This car was adopted as a taxi in cities and was even developed into a race car in 1907.

No longer seen as a threat to the existing coal-powered transport, the EVs of the time were limited by the charge in their batteries, but experienced a vogue as ‘city cars’ for the rich who wanted to travel short distances in style. Sales peaked in the early 1900s, when roughly one-third of all cars on US roads were electric.

But EVs first Golden Age came to an abrupt end in the 1920s with the arrival of the man whose name would become synonymous with car manufacturing the world over: Henry Ford.

The rise of petrol

When Ford’s Model T parked on the scene, it brought with it affordable, mass produced petrol-powered transport – EV popularity quickly began its descent. Their limited battery capacities had become a downside as road networks expanded, and the discovery of more petroleum deposits meant that gasoline was more readily available and cheaper than recharging batteries.

Electric milk float in Barnet, London, 1970

One of the only EVs that survived the next few decades was the quintessentially British milk float, which made up the majority of global EVs for most of the 20th century. Away from milk rounds and golf carts, the entire electric automobile industry went silent and the technology stagnated – it looked like gasoline was here to stay.

That was, until a very special electric car took a spin in outer space.

The moon is the limit

In the summer of 1971, the world was glued to TV sets as the Apollo 15 mission to the moon unfolded, featuring a special guest – the new Lunar Roving Vehicle, which ran on battery power. There are currently three rovers parked on the moon, and their continued evolution helped renew interest in electric powered vehicles throughout the 1960s and 70s. It led to a few new battery-powered concept cars appearing, manufactured by General Motors.

Apollo programme lunar rover

Apollo programme lunar rover

Now powered by lithium or nickel-cadmium batteries, these cars provided a viable option for those concerned about the economic fluctuations of the oil and gas industries, with electricity not as exposed to market changes.

The pace of EV innovation picked up after the development of the lithium-ion battery, which significantly extended life and power output, opening the potential for electric vehicles to become more than just short distance city cars.

These cars weren’t produced en masse until the 2000s, after more than three decades of the global environmental movement and its influence over public policy.

As the technology caught up with an ambition to find a practical alternative to fossil fuel powered transport, the EV entered its second golden age.

Tesla driving towards onshore wind farm

Tesla driving towards onshore wind farm

Where are we now?

Today there are over 273,000 electric cars on Britain’s roads, but this is set to grow quickly and significantly. By 2025 it’s estimated there will be 1 million EVs on UK roads – by 2040 there could be as many as 11 million.

Most mainstream car producers are now racing to take the lead in the EV market, from the headline grabbing antics of Tesla to the petrol-powered stalwarts of Volkswagen, Nissan and even Ford. And it’s not just the personal vehicle industry where electricity is racing ahead as a fuel source. Everything from inner-city scooters to the rapidly-evolving aviation industry are being electrified – the first electric passenger jet could be ready for take-off as soon as 2027.

Powering the way that we travel has become one of the most important conversations around the future of transport – and taking a look into the past suggests that this time electric vehicles are here to stay.

What is a fuel cell and how will they help power the future?

A model fuel cell car

NASA Museum, Houston, Texas

How do you get a drink in space? That was one of the challenges for NASA in the 1960s and 70s when its Gemini and Apollo programmes were first preparing to take humans into space.

The answer, it turned out, surprisingly lay in the electricity source of the capsules’ control modules. Primitive by today’s standard, these panels were powered by what are known as fuel cells, which combined hydrogen and oxygen to generate electricity. The by-product of this reaction is heat but also water – pure enough for astronauts to drink.

Fuel cells offered NASA a much better option than the clunky batteries and inefficient solar arrays of the 1960s, and today they still remain on the forefront of energy technology, presenting the opportunity to clean up roads, power buildings and even help to reduce and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from power stations.

Power through reaction

At its most basic, a fuel cell is a device that uses a fuel source to generate electricity through a series of chemical reactions.

All fuel cells consist of three segments, two catalytic electrodes – a negatively charged anode on one side and a positively charged cathode on the other, and an electrolyte separating them. In a simple fuel cell, hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe, is pumped to one electrode and oxygen to the other. Two different reactions then occur at the interfaces between the segments which generates electricity and water.

What allows this reaction to generate electricity is the electrolyte, which selectively transports charged particles from one electrode to the other. These charged molecules link the two reactions at the cathode and anode together and allow the overall reaction to occur. When the chemicals fed into the cell react at the electrodes, it creates an electrical current that can be harnessed as a power source.

Many different kinds of chemicals can be used in a fuel cell, such as natural gas or propane instead of hydrogen. A fuel cell is usually named based on the electrolyte used. Different electrolytes selectively transport different molecules across. The catalysts at either side are specialised to ensure that the correct reactions can occur at a fast enough rate.

For the Apollo missions, for example, NASA used alkaline fuel cells with potassium hydroxide electrolytes, but other types such as phosphoric acids, molten carbonates, or even solid ceramic electrolytes also exist.

The by-products to come out of a fuel cell all depend on what goes into it, however, their ability to generate electricity while creating few emissions, means they could have a key role to play in decarbonisation.

Fuel cells as a battery alternative

Fuel cells, like batteries, can store potential energy (in the form of chemicals), and then quickly produce an electrical current when needed. Their key difference, however, is that while batteries will eventually run out of power and need to be recharged, fuel cells will continue to function and produce electricity so long as there is fuel being fed in.

One of the most promising uses for fuel cells as an alternative to batteries is in electric vehicles.

Rachel Grima, a Research and Innovation Engineer at Drax, explains:

“Because it’s so light, hydrogen has a lot of potential when it comes to larger vehicles, like trucks and boats. Whereas battery-powered trucks are more difficult to design because they’re so heavy.”

These vehicles can pull in oxygen from the surrounding air to react with the stored hydrogen, producing only heat and water vapour as waste products. Which – coupled with an expanding network of hydrogen fuelling stations around the UK, Europe and US – makes them a transport fuel with a potentially big future.

Fuel cells, in conjunction with electrolysers, can also operate as large-scale storage option. Electrolysers operate in reverse to fuel cells, using excess electricity from the grid to produce hydrogen from water and storing it until it’s needed. When there is demand for electricity, the hydrogen is released and electricity generation begins in the fuel cell.

A project on the islands of Orkney is using the excess electricity generated by local, community-owned wind turbines to power a electrolyser and store hydrogen, that can be transported to fuel cells around the archipelago.

Fuel cells’ ability to take chemicals and generate electricity is also leading to experiments at Drax for one of the most important areas in energy today: carbon capture.

Turning COto power

Drax is already piloting bioenergy carbon capture and storage technologies, but fuel cells offer the unique ability to capture and use carbon while also adding another form of electricity generation to Drax Power Station.

“We’re looking at using a molten carbonate fuel cell that operates on natural gas, oxygen and CO2,” says Grima. “It’s basic chemistry that we can exploit to do carbon capture.”

The molten carbonate, a 600 degrees Celsius liquid made up of either lithium potassium or lithiumsodium carbonate sits in a ceramic matrix and functions as the electrolyte in the fuel cell. Natural gas and steam enter on one side and pass through a reformer that converts them into hydrogen and CO2.

On the other side, flue gas – the emissions (including biogenic CO2) which normally enter the atmosphere from Drax’s biomass units – is captured and fed into the cell alongside air from the atmosphere. The CO2and oxygen (O2) pass over the electrode where they form carbonate (CO32-) which is transported across the electrolyte to then react with the hydrogen (H2), creating an electrical charge.

“It’s like combining an open cycle gas turbine (OCGT) with carbon capture,” says Grima. “It has the electrical efficiency of an OCGT. But the difference is it captures COfrom our biomass units as well as its own CO2.”

Along with capturing and using CO2, the fuel cell also reduces nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions from the flue gas, some of which are destroyed when the O2and CO2 react at the electrode.

From the side of the cell where flue gas enters a CO2-depleted gas is released. On the other side of the cell the by-products are water and CO2.

During a government-supported front end engineering and design (FEED) study starting this spring, this COwill also be captured, then fed through a pipeline running from Drax Power Station into the greenhouse of a nearby salad grower. Here it will act to accelerate the growth of tomatoes.

The partnership between Drax, FuelCell Energy, P3P Partners and the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy could provide an additional opportunity for the UK’s biggest renewable power generator to deploy bioenergy carbon capture usage and storage (BECCUS) at scale in the mid 2020s.

From powering space ships in the 70s to offering greenhouse-gas free transport, fuel cells continue to advance. As low-carbon electricity sources become more important they’re set to play a bigger role yet.

Learn more about carbon capture, usage and storage in our series:

Dude, where’s my autonomous car? How self-driving vehicles will impact electricity

The self-driving car is a sci-fi stalwart. The blend of familiar vehicle combined with advanced-artificial intelligence makes it a perfect symbol of a not-too-distant future which is fast approaching. But what a sci-fi movie is unlikely to show is a self-driving car pulling over for half an hour to fill its tank or recharge its batteries.

As autonomous vehicles gradually inch into our everyday life, the question of how they will be powered arises, as does whether they will be capable of refuelling or recharging without a helping human hand.

With governments around the world setting ambitious targets for the phasing out of diesel and petrol car sales, it’s safe to assume the driverless vehicles of the future will be electric.

But will they be able to charge themselves? More than that, how would a large influx of these cars coming onto our roads affect our national electricity demand and emissions?

How will driverless cars charge themselves?

Development is already well underway to bring human-free charging to the auto world with a variety of approaches being trialled:

  • Robotic charging points

The most straightforward way to enable self-driving electric vehicles (EVs) to charge themselves is through updating existing infrastructure. Adding on robotic limbs to standard charge points would be one way of removing the need for human hands. Tesla previously demonstrated a porotype of a snake-like arm that plugs into its vehicle’s charge points that does exactly this. 

  • Under-car charging

Easier than flailing robotic arms is the idea of charging cars from underneath a parked car. Unsurprisingly, Tesla has patented a version of the technology, too.

While building the technology into the ground adds complications, it could potentially allow cars to be charged while moving – which is exactly what one road in Sweden is doing.

The two kilometre stretch outside Stockholm features a metal track that an arm under EVs can connect to – much like a Scalextric track. The route is divided into 50-metre sections which are electrified separately as vehicles travel over them. Sweden is now planning to roll the concept out nationally.

  • Wireless charging

A step up from under-car charging, wireless technology uses inductive charging rather than physically connecting with the car, and can be installed into parking spaces, or be set into the tarmac.

The problem with this is it’s not as fast as directly connecting with the car. However, implemented at scale, entire roads could constantly charge vehicles when they need a top up.

It would mean that rather than taking EVs home and plugging them in, the city and roads themselves would charge it. But even the idea of keeping a car at home might fade as cars become increasingly autonomous.

Rethinking vehicle ownership

As more of the world’s population move to cities and they grow increasingly congested, car ownership is declining – a trend being further fueled by ridesharing services, like Uber, Lyft and Didi Chuxing in China.

And as services such as these continue to grow in popularity, it could point to a future where rather than owning self-driving cars, they will be shared among urban populations. Lyft Strategist Raj Kapoor suggested the reduced cost of maintenance of shared EVs would make rides cheap enough for the average person to ride in every day.

This could result in fewer cars on the roads as intelligent systems allow them to coordinate sharing across the population, which in turn could lead to a reduction in demand for charging. However, the more intense computing power needed in self-driving vehicles means they will each use more electricity than a standard EV.

Powering these sufficiently will depend on technology and coordination, rather than producing significantly more electricity.

Smarter cars, smarter cities, smarter electricity

Changes in car ownership could mean the total reshaping of cities. If cars don’t need to park for long periods of times on central roadsides and in garages, vehicles could instead be stored on the outskirts of cities when demand for transport is low and make their way into towns as people begin commuting.

This vision of cars, seemingly independently rolling around cities to exactly where they’re needed, depends not on a single car reacting to a single command, but to a network of data points connected to almost every aspect of a city. More than this, there’s even potential these cars could provide power as well as use it.

Vehicle-to-gird (V2G) technology means they can essentially act as batteries and return electricity to the grid when needed. A fully connected network of autonomous cars, linked to buildings, cities and entire electricity networks could be used to help meet demand on a local or national scale, helping avoid fossil fuel usage at times of stress.

While increasing EV usage will likely contribute to an increase in electricity demand, self-driving, smarter vehicles will ensure power is used at efficiently as possible and reduce the number of cars drawing electricity from the grid.

It ultimately means global investment in the charging infrastructure that will create a more connected and economical transport system, which will make widespread EV and autonomous cars a reality.