How to build a better battery

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Throughout the season, listeners sent in smart questions about how technology will help us adapt. You wanted to know things like: what happens to all those dead batteries? Is mining the only way to get the metals we need to get out of fossil fuels? What about batteries that don’t require lithium at all?

To get answers, we visited the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where a few scientists are looking to build the better and safer batteries of the future. Kristin Persson and Gerbrand Ceder specialize in materials science, battery technology and energy storage, and conduct their research on behalf of the Department of Energy.

There’s a reason lithium makes a good battery material, scientists say. It’s superconducting, it’s light. The price has dropped significantly over the years which means it is relatively inexpensive.

“Lithium is really king,” Ceder said. “The only problem that remains with lithium… is safety, and it’s not a giant problem, but it is a problem. And [the other problem is] the abundance of the earth.

By “earthly abundance”, Ceder speaks of the availability and ease of extraction of a given metal. Lithium is plentiful, but it has yet to be mined from the ground, and as we know from previous episodes, running a new lithium mine is a controversial matter. Lithium-ion batteries are based on nickel and cobalt, two metals rarer than lithium and which have their own complications (cobalt mines in Congo are known for Human rights abuse). Lithium-ion batteries can cause fires that are difficult to put out, although this is rare.

Persson and Ceder are working to identify and experiment with new materials for batteries. Sodium, for example, is salt and is available all around us. Another possible combination: magnesium and calcium. These materials show promise, but Ceder and Persson warn it will take time.

“The average time to market for a new material is 18 years,” Ceder said. “It’s actually worse than finding drugs.”

And finally, what will happen to all the batteries after they are dead? We will look at a process known as “urban mining”, that is, recycling lithium. We will visit a company that hopes to extend the lifecycle of lithium and eventually make mining from the ground a thing of the past.

The first season of “How We Survive” deals with the messy task of finding climate solutions. New episodes come out every Wednesday. Make sure you follow us on your favorite podcast and tell a friend if you enjoy the show.


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