EV - Li, Na, Fe, Si, Mg, S?

Posted on September 19, 2022

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Electric vehicles (EVs) have been at the forefront of sustainability news for some time now, but California’s new regulations on gas-powered vehicles put the spotlight back on EVs. A new policy approved on August 25, 2022, plans to require all new cars, trucks, and SUVs to run on either electricity or hydrogen by 2035. The goal of this policy is to reduce carbon emissions from vehicles in half by 2040. The policy lays out benchmarks to ensure that the lofty goals are met. For example, the first benchmark comes in 2026 when one-third of all vehicles sold in California must be zero-emissions. This would mean doubling the percentage of zero-emissions vehicles sold in the next four years.

Ambitious? Absolutely. But California’s policy isn't the only one of its kind. Separately, European parliament and Canada implemented something similar earlier in 2022. And more than 10 states are mulling over similar policies and wanting to follow California’s lead.

Most people agree that having more EVs and less gas-powered cars on the roads would be a huge step towards being a more sustainable planet. But what are some of the challenges associated with widespread adoption of EVs, and how can some of these challenges be solved?

Challenges associated with widespread rollout of EVs

Some of the major issues associated with widespread adoption of EVs are related to charging them. Currently, the infrastructure is not where it needs to be to support the forecasted 70 million EVs on the road by 2040. Charging stations are an expensive investment which has resulted in slow implementation on an individual level, as well as commercially.

Not only are charging stations not widely available, but even if they were, the power grids are already strained and adding the power load of several million EVs might prove too much. Some concerns about overload can be alleviated if EVs are charged around peak hours such as early in the morning or late at night, but even that might not be enough to sustain power grids with the forecasted 70 million EVs that will need to be charged in 2040.

Aside from electrical infrastructure, there is another major problem – finite resources needed to produce EVs and their batteries. EVs use more than six times the mineral inputs than their gas-powered counterparts. The forecasted 70 million EVs on the road by 2040 will call for a 30-fold increase in mineral demand. While the amount of these minerals on earth is quite large, most of them are underground and mining them raises other major concerns. A shortage of nickel has already been predicted and lithium production could be quite difficult to scale up.

You can read more about the challenges ahead for widespread adoption of EVs in “The road to an EV future still has a few potholes. Here’s how to fix them” by Luis Avelar published on World Economic Forum’s website.

The challenges are real but advances in technology and science could help navigate them on the way to a more sustainable means of transportation.

We’ll focus on the future of EV batteries as investigate how science will aid the widespread adoption of EVs. A single car lithium-ion battery pack can contain around 8 kg of lithium, 35 kg of nickel, 20 kg of manganese, and 14 kg of cobalt according to Argonne National Laboratory. Lithium-ion batteries will likely be the most used technology in EV batteries for the foreseeable future, but tons of research is being done in an attempt to find more efficient alternatives. There are several alternatives being investigated and Euronews.com explains some of the more promising ones in their article “We’re facing a lithium batter crisis: What are the alternatives?” Keep reading to find out what the future of EV batteries could look like.

Alternatives to Li, which will it be: Na, Fe, Mg, Si, LiS-B4C, or something else?

The search for an alternative to lithium-ion batteries starts with a close cousin, sodium. Sodium is in the same group as lithium because it has an identical valence electron configuration. Elements in the same group, or column on the periodic table of elements, have similar chemical properties. However, sodium does have some disadvantages compared to lithium: 1) lithium has an atomic mass of 6.94 units while sodium has a much larger atomic mass of 22.99 units, and 2) sodium has a lower cell voltage than lithium. While a viable sustainable battery source, sodium isn’t exactly primed for success with a higher weight and less power.

Another promising alternative could be iron. Iron has a higher reduction potential meaning that it is more sustainable from an efficiency perspective. Roughly one year ago in September 2021, Bloomberg published an article about a company, SB Energy Corp., in Oregon, U.S. using iron-flow chemistry as a renewable power storage technology. Like sodium, iron has a major disadvantage in terms of weight. Iron’s atomic mass is roughly 8 times heavier than lithium at 55.85 units. The major weight difference correlates to a major size difference of the resulting batteries. But the heavier, larger batteries are significantly cheaper to produce with lithium-ion batteries estimated to cost as much as $350 per kWh compared to a possible $200 per kWh of iron-flow batteries.

There are other alternatives to lithium than sodium and iron such as magnesium and silicon. But Bemp Research Corp plans to disrupt the $150 billion dollar battery market with its lithium-sulfur battery technology. The technology was developed at North Texas and independently tested at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The lithium-sulfur battery technology hinges on hemp… yes, hemp. The company can use boron carbide (B4C) derived from the sustainable and widely available hemp plant to facilitate high sulfur loading and high electrochemical utilization in lithium-sulfur batteries. A paper titled “Long-Life Lithium-Sulfur Batteries with a Bifunctional Cathode Substrate Configured with Boron Carbide Nanowires” describes how the technology works.

EnergyTech sat down with Bemp Research Corp.’s Founder, Son Nguyen, to find out more information about how hemp derived B4C could alleviate many of the issues currently faced by lithium-ion batteries. To summarize, Nguyen had the following to say about the advantages of LiS-B4C batteries compared to lithium-ion batteries:

  • LiS-B4C batteries are superior in terms of energy density, safety, and costs, as well as environmental friendliness.
  • Hemp is a great resource due to its durability, porosity, and low costs.
  • LiS-B4C batteries could alleviate supply chain issues due to the relatively high abundance of sulfur and boron, and how easy hemp is to cultivate.

Son Nguyen goes on to explain what challenges are left to solve before LiS-B4C batteries become commercially available lithium-ion alternatives. He expressed that their hope is to have these batteries on the market as early as 2026. So, keep an eye out for this technology in the next couple of years. Who knows, we may be using hemp to get around in the future.

Check in next month for some more news in Avanti’s Sustainability Seconds! Read other articles in the series at https://avantilipids.com/news/category/sustainability-seconds.