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UN report drives cobalt-free and silicon battery tech

Business news |
By Nick Flaherty





A report from the UN trade body, UNCTAD, out today calls for the social and environmental impacts of the extraction of raw materials to be urgently addressed with a drive to cobalt-free and silicon battery technology.

Electric cars are rapidly becoming more popular amongst consumers, and UNCTAD predicts that some 23 million will be sold over the coming decade. Ads th demand demand for raw materials used in the production of electric car batteries is set to soar, the market for rechargeable car batteries, currently estimated at $7bn, is forecast to rise to $58bn in just three years by 2024.

For example, two-thirds of all cobalt production happens in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) which has reserves of 3.4m tonnes, comapred to the second highest supplier Australia at 1.4m tonnes. According the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), about 20 per cent of cobalt supplied from the DRC comes from artisanal mines, where human rights abuses have been reported, and up to 40,000 children work in extremely dangerous conditions in the mines for meagre income.

In Chile, lithium mining uses nearly 65% of the water in the country’s Salar de Atamaca region, one of the driest desert areas in the world, to pump out brines from drilled wells. This has forced local quinoa farmers and llama herders to migrate and abandon ancestral settlements. It has also contributed to environment degradation, landscape damage and soil contamination, groundwater depletion and pollution.

“The rise in demand for the strategic raw materials used to manufacture electric car batteries will open more trade opportunities for the countries that supply these materials,” said Pamela Coke-Hamilton UNCTAD’s director of international trade. In the DRC, this would mean building processing plants and refineries that would add value and, potentially, jobs within the country. However, for various reasons (including limited infrastructure, financing and a lack of appropriate policies), refining takes place in other countries, mainly Belgium, China, Finland, Norway and Zambia, which reap the economic benefit.

The report recommends that countries such as DRC provide “conducive environment to attract investment to establish new mines or expand existing ones”.

UNCTAD also recommends that the industry find ways to reduce its dependence on critical raw materials. For example, scientists are researching the possibility of using widely-available silicon, instead of graphite (80% of natural graphite reserves are in China, Brazil and Turkey). Researchers around the world have been looking at silicon battery technology and ways to remove cobalt from designs, while companies such as BMW have been developing projects for sustainable cobalt mining.

A typical production facility making 6,500 kg of lithium manganese nickel cobalt oxides per day can consume 99,000 litres of water and produce fine particles that become waste material. Natural battery graphite production is also highly wasteful, with 40 to 70 per cent of the mined graphite being typically lost as waste. If the industry manages to become less reliant on materials concentrated in a small number of countries, says UNCTAD, there is more chance that prices of batteries will drop, leading to greater take-up of electric cars, and a shift away from fossil-fuel powered transport. Telsa for example is reported to be worning on new cobalt-free battery technology, 

Recycling of old batteries is also a key recommendation in the report. 

As for the environmental consequences of the batteries themselves, the report recommends the development of improved, more sustainable mining techniques, and the recycling of the raw materials used in old lithium-Ion batteries, a measure that would help deal with the expected increase in demand, and also create new business opportunities.

The report is here

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