If you were a mobile phone user during the early stages of this century, and have dropped your phone inadvertently, chances are, the cover, phone and battery pack would have come out, and then you had to figure out how to put it back. It happened to me many times while using my Nokia and Samsung phones, that was the first time, I saw a Lithium battery.
Lithium Battery and the Impact?
Wikipedia gives the following definition –
“A lithium-ion battery or Li-ion battery is a type of rechargeable battery. Lithium-ion batteries are commonly used for portable electronics and electric vehicles and are growing in popularity for military and aerospace applications. The technology was largely developed by John Goodenough, Stanley Whittingham, Rachid Yazami and Akira Yoshino during the 1970s–1980s, and then commercialized by a Sony and Asahi Kasei team led by Yoshio Nishi in 1991.”
Over the years, the usage and adoption of Lithium batteries have grown from strength to strength. Due to its high energy density, which can store a lot of energy without frequent recharging and almost zero maintenance costs, it has lead to wide-scale adoption. Mobile phones, laptops, consumer electronics, electric vehicles, power storage devices – varieties of applications are using Lithium batteries. The advent of electric transport systems and it’s rising popularity driven primarily because battery-operated vehicles are less polluting compared to fuel ones’ leading to the massive demand for raw materials.
Such is the impact of the technology, that interestingly last year – 2019, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was given to John Goodenough, Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino “for the development of lithium-ion batteries”.
Lithium, the major element used to manufacture lithium-ion batteries is extremely rare. Much of the reserves are found in 4 South American countries – Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile, Brazil – an area that is holding more than 50% of the global reserves. US, China, and Australia are other major reserves.
According to Benchmark Minerals Intelligence, a price reporting agency, the demand for lithium-ion batteries has tripled since 2015 to 180-gigawatt hours (GWh).
The Indian Discovery
In the fiscal year 2019, one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, India, imported lithium battery worth about $1.2 billion, which was almost 3 times from 2017 figures (~$380 million). The ever-growing demand is largely fueled by the country’s power needs and more because of a highly optimistic objective of replacing all vehicles with electric vehicles by 2030 including the plan to set up 10 large factories to produce lithium-ion batteries over the next 10 years. These worthy intentions cannot rely upon other countries and hence India had to look for self-reliant options.
As they say, where there is a will, there is away. Giving a major boost to this plan, in Feb 2020 the country has discovered a small reserve in Mandya, south of Karnataka. This is the first time India has found Lithium, giving hopes of more such reserves in other parts of the country, which could help a great deal in reducing the import bill and dependency on countries.
All is not hunky-dory
Lithium battery propelled electric cars not only have a lesser environmental impact than polluting petrol or diesel cars but it also has greater benefits over lead-acid batteries. Lead batteries pose a serious health impact, especially when exposed to children. This makes Lithium-ion batteries a critical element in our fight against climate change, reduction in greenhouse gases and cleaning the planet.
Although lithium isn’t a toxic heavy metal like lead or as polluting as coal-based power sources, it is not as good as it may seem to be. Skeptics have raised objections on the battery manufacturing process, especially the ineffective techniques used in some geographies. It also poses challenges during re-cycling, due to metals like cobalt, nickel that are used in the battery.
In addition, there have been serious concerns about the mining impacts of lithium. The extraction of lithium requires the evaporation process, which requires loads of water – as per estimates of approximately 500,000 gallons per tonne of lithium. In some parts of mining areas, more than 60% of water is consumed from the region, in the mining process. This is having high repercussions on the local farmers and communities.
While there is no denying that Lithium produced power is a far better source than the coal-burning fossil fuels, but we need to look at alternatives. The work is already underway to discover new energy which is more sustainable, like Thermal battery.