A growing dependency on lithium: Will the Electric Revolution ever arrive at safer batteries?
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Lithium-Ion batteries power pretty much everything on the planet: From cars, ferries, airplanes, bikes and scooters to the computers and communication devices we rely on everyday. We know these battery packs are not entirely safe, yet the demand for them is increasing.
Lithium-Ion batteries come with dangers: The batteries develop heat when they are charged and discharged, and when used improperly, charged too quickly, or the battery is damaged, old or over used, they can experience a so called thermal runaway, which means the battery self ignites. Fire developments can be rapid, even explosive.
Lithium is also highly reactive and can start to self ignite when the battery pack is for some reason exposed to oxygen - a car crash, improperly performed mechanical work, charging with more amperes than the battery rating - all these things can lead to fires. Sometimes, in rare cases, batteries have been known to self ignite for no apparent reason at all.
Even if the percentage of situations where batteries are causing fires is small, the sheer amount of batteries used and discarded every day, is going to cause some problems overall - at least until the public has been taught to respect these power sources more and treat them as the potential fire hazards they are.
Experts have known about these ignitiblity problems for a while, and the problems are just starting to reach the public eye very recently. After a recent uptick in deadly fires started by small lithium battery packs, several apartment buildings in New York have recently banned E-bikes and E-scooters from being charged on their premises.
Fire departments around the world have been issuing warnings and safe handling guides for lithium batteries in 2022, and have warned consumers not leave vehicles and devices charging unattended, or to buy after market chargers and generic brand batteries.
Properly handled, these batteries are not necessarily any more dangerous than gasoline or diesel, but the conditions in which people are using batteries are very different than the situations where petrol or diesel is handled.
A ban on fossil fuel may help save our environment - but flammability issues of lithium remains an issue
Canada decided in December 2022 that no more fossil fuel cars will be sold in the country by 2035. The EU decided in October 2022 to ban the sale of fossil fuel cars by 2035.
Many manufacturers in the US, like General Motors, have also recently decided to phase out fossil fuel vehicles in the same time frame.
The near global decision to end fossil fuel vehicles only makes public demand for lithium even greater. The latest trend is for very large vehicles to be powered with electricity, vehicles like buses, SUVs, ferries, even small aircraft are being equipped with battery power.
Hundreds of thousands of Americans are currently on wait lists for electric SUVs and EV pickup trucks, with even bigger battery packs than regular electric cars.
Larger EVs means a need for more power
According to an article on SVT.se, many Americans are planning to use their electric SUVs as back up power plants when they lose electric power due to storms and other types of blackouts. Whereas traditionally, preppers and people in areas exposed to electric blackouts normally would rely on diesel generators, a large EV is now, in many people's minds, all they need to stay warm and lit.
A man in Charleston, South Carolina says to the Swedish news station that the battery pack installed in his electric pick-up truck could power his family's entire home for almost a week:
"My EV truck can make me almost self sufficient for electricity. I have three kids and a fridge full of food. I don't want to lose that", he says.
Is lithium all that there is?
More demands for EVs doesn't only mean a higher demand for lithium batteries: It also means that new and better routines for storing, using and discarding these powerful battery packs will be needed. Moreover, firefighters will need guidelines and equipment to deal with the fires that will inevitably continue to occur - and likely increase - as more more and more machines will be powered by lithium.
But is lithium the end-all of the electric revolution? Or are there safer batteries on the horizon?
The quest to move away from Lithium based batteries
Research projects for finding safer battery types - which pack as much or more energy per gram as lithium - have been ongoing for a decade or more.
CTIF.org has previously written about such research in earlier posts, like for instance an Australian project attempting to create a Zink-Manganese based battery, or the Swedish research project to create aluminium based batteries. However, none of these research projects have yet been introduced on the market.
According to an article on BBC, the latest effort comes from Finland, where forestry company Stora Enso currently is attempting to develop a battery based on lignin, which is a polymer found in trees. The company's goal is to create EV batteries that can charge up in as little as eight minutes, and without the somewhat erratic issues with thermal runaway as lithium.
"Lignin is the glue in the trees that kind of glues the cellulose fibres together and also makes the trees very stiff," says Lauri Lehtonen, head of Stora Enso's lignin-based battery solution, Lignode, to the BBC.
Stora Enso's engineers discovered they can extract lignin from the waste pulp already being produced at some of their facilities. That lignin can then be used to make a carbon material for battery anodes, and the firm is partnering with Swedish company Northvolt and plans to manufacture wood based batteries as early as 2025.
Photo Credit: (Cover Photo above)
Wikipedia Commons License. Nissan Leaf at the 2009 Tokyo Motor Show. Date: 23 October 2009