Sustainable battery materials? Yeah, right – or, right on!

How could bio-waste possibly be incorporated into sodium-ion batteries? This is the question a new strategic partnership hopes to answer. Australian company Sparc Technologies will collaborate with Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in hopes of identifying a meaningful alternative to lithium-ion batteries. Sustainable battery materials are in demand with the massive consumption of technological devices and electric vehicles, and sodium-ion batteries (NIBs) have attracted worldwide attention for next-generation energy storage systems.

A high performance, less expensive and sustainably sourced anode material for sodium-ion batteries could address the need for a growing alternative battery technology. The researchers believe that sodium-ion batteries have significant potential for grid-scale storage and mobile applications. Wood Mackenzie expects sodium-ion batteries to take a share of electric passenger vehicles and energy storage, reaching 20 GWh by 2030 in its base case.

Existing hard carbon materials typically come from carbonaceous precursors such as pitch – a by-product of the oil and gas industry – which undergo prolonged heating at high temperatures. It is a very energy-intensive process which, combined with a high-emitting raw material, has significant environmental impacts. The Sparc/QUT project will develop a new process for producing hard carbon from low-cost green bio-waste from sustainable sources, targeting the sodium-ion battery industry. The hard carbon materials will be characterized and tested in a sodium-ion cell format at QUT’s facilities for battery development and testing, including the National Battery Testing Center and the Central Analytical Research Facility.

The advantages of sodium-ion batteries over lithium-ion batteries, as stated in a joint Sparc/QUT press release, are:

  • Reduced cost and greater availability of raw materials
  • Safety and ease of transport
  • Manufacturing techniques similar to lithium-ion and therefore can use the same production facilities

The Sustainable Hard Carbon Anode project complements Sparc’s existing businesses in graphene and renewable energy. Graphene is a two-dimensional material composed of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal lattice; this structure creates unique and powerful properties that can be imparted to products to improve performance.

The long-term cooperation framework enables Sparc and QUT to work together to identify and undertake new projects. Sparc Managing Director Mike Bartels commented, “Sparc is delighted to join QUT in a strategic partnership, starting with a project in the battery anode space with the development of a new process for the production hard carbon. Using sustainable and readily available bio-waste will provide Sparc with a strong environmental value proposition over conventional hard carbon sources.

Bartels added that the materials used in sodium-ion batteries are accessible, uncontested in supply as is the case with lithium-ion batteries, and provide increased security for energy storage at scale. industrial.

What is the history of sodium-ion batteries?

Sodium has many attributes as a candidate for new battery technology, primarily because it is inexpensive and abundant. Again, its limited performance has hampered many other research projects and the hope of large-scale applications.

Indeed, the strong instability of the solid electrolyte interphase (SEI) formed during repeated cycling hinders the development of NIBs. One of the dilemmas is to stabilize the liquid core of the battery to avoid the performance issues of older sodium-ion battery projects. As a battery goes through repeated charging and discharging cycles, it loses its ability to hold a charge.

Researchers at Cornell University have also discovered the source of a persistent problem limiting the durability of sodium-ion batteries. The low durability stems from a specific atomic reshuffling in battery operation – the P2-O2 phase transition – when ions traveling through the battery disrupt crystal structures and eventually break them. Although the phase transition has interested researchers, the mechanisms underlying it have been difficult to study, especially during battery operation.

What will it take for Sparc/QUT sodium-ion R&D to produce reliability results similar to today’s leading battery sources?

The competition among battery technologies

The 3 currently widely used battery technologies are lead, lithium and vanadium redox flow. A number of factors must be considered when selecting the most appropriate battery chemistry to meet a company’s energy storage needs.

Technology maturity: Lead is the most mature of the three battery technologies and has been the primary energy storage solution for many years. Lithium is another commercially mature technology on the scale needed today. With its high energy density, lithium is currently the dominant battery technology for energy storage and comes in a wide variety of chemical combinations. Vanadium redox flow battery technology has been around for over 50 years, but it is the least commercially mature of the 3 chemistries.

Sustainability: Lead is the most sustainable of the 3 battery chemistries with a 99% recycling rate and a well-developed circular economy that reuses and recycles lead, electrolyte and plastic components from used batteries. Vanadium is almost infinitely reusable, as the electrolyte that makes up most of a vanadium battery system can be dried, purified if necessary, and then used in another system. Lithium is the least sustainable, with a recycling rate of less than 5%, due to the cost and complexity of the process: a lithium battery must be disassembled and crushed, then melted or dissolved in acid.

Operating time: Vanadium is best suited for long-term energy storage (6 hours or more of run time). It has a larger footprint, but is easier to expand. Lithium is suitable for short to medium durations (from a few minutes to four hours of operation). Lead also works best for short to medium duration, especially in situations where depth of discharge is quite low and low initial cost is a major trigger.

Useful life: The useful life of a lithium battery is around 10 to 15 years, while vanadium can last over 30 years. Lead-acid batteries can have a useful life of up to 30 years, depending on design and applications.

Security: All 3 battery systems are generally safe, assuming there are no faults or damage.

Supply Chain: Lead is readily available and produced locally. Domestic recycling provides 73% of domestic lead demand. The United States has about 4% of lithium reserves and produces less than 2% of the world’s supply. Currently, there is no domestic production of vanadium in the United States, leaving the United States dependent on foreign sources.

Final Thoughts

Energy and climate concerns have increased the need for research into electrical energy storage. Due to the unique advantages of sodium ion batteries, such as cost and nearly limitless resources, interest in them has increased dramatically in recent years. The Sparc/QUT project holds out hope for additional resources of sustainable battery materials and the possibility of incorporating options that are more environmentally friendly and even less expensive than lithium-ion batteries.

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