Image: © ra2 studio / Adobe Stock
Last week, at the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact Summit during the UN Week, world leaders were presented with the outcomes of the Global Battery Alliance report “A Vision for a Sustainable Battery Value Chain in 2030”. The report, commissioned by the Global Battery Alliance (GBA) – a public-private partnership led by the World Economic Forum – and led by McKinsey & Company, with support from SYSTEMIQ, presents a simple yet profound vision of a circular, responsible and just battery value chain that gets us all closer to the 2˚C limit under the Paris Agreement. Moreover, it stipulates that battery technology will enable a 30% reduction of emissions in the transport and power sectors by 2030.
In light of this, I sat down with HSSMI experts Robin Foster (Solution Lead for Batteries) and Alberto Minguela (Technical Lead for Circular Economy and project leader for the Innovate UK funded project VALUABLE, which focuses on the second-life of automotive Li-ion batteries) to discuss their thoughts on the report, the current state of batteries in the UK and where we can go from here. As such, the views expressed in this interview are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of HSSMI as a business.
About the report and HSSMI involvement
How did HSSMI get involved?
The Faraday Institution, which is a member of the GBA, invited us to contribute to the Alliance. There, we joined the Circular Economy Working Group, which has been working on this report, amongst other things. We’re still part of the Working Group and are involved in several other aspects of it as well.
How have we contributed?
We contributed significantly to the terminology, to clarifying it, mostly around the reverse supply chain – remanufacturing, recycling, repurposing. In particular, we highlighted the importance of battery collection and design for disassembly. HSSMI has a holistic approach to the battery industry; we’re able to look at it from the perspective of various different stakeholders. We see battery collection as a key aspect of the value chain, something that everyone involved in the supply chain needs to consider. Design for disassembly, on the other hand, is a key enabler for any stakeholder to unlock the value that is highlighted in the report.
Relevant to the report themes
The report raises two key questions: how can the deployment of batteries be accelerated and how can batteries be produced responsibly and sustainably. How would you as experts answer? What are the most important take-aways from the report for you?
Chapter 4 at the very end of the report details the specific actions that different stakeholders can take and work that can be done to realise the value that the report claims there is. Beyond that, the report clearly shows that reducing greenhouse gas emissions is not as simple as switching vehicle powertrains. It all has knock-on effects and implications for CO2 levels and waste. We need to consider all of the aspects to make an effective change.
For many, the political consequences of EVs aren’t apparent. However, as raw materials for EV batteries are localised to a few specific areas, most of which are politically unstable, this transition has a direct implication on the people in these countries. Nonetheless, moving from fossil fuels is key – simplifying the supply chain and exploring alternative sources battery raw materials can only help.
HSSMI emphasised the part of “battery collection” in the supply chain in this report. What makes battery collection so important?
If we want to recover materials and the value they contain at their end-of-life, we need to get them to the places where that recovery can happen. In getting old batteries to the recovery plant, it’s important to comply with environmental and social responsibilities and the recovery itself also has to be done correctly, without causing environmental damage. Hence, the right physical and regulatory infrastructure needs to be in place.
There are two sides to this, really – people wanting to give their batteries back for recycling and the industry being able to take them back and knowing what to do with them. Internal combustion vehicles get dropped off at scrap yards. EVs follow the same route, but there arestill may unknowns with regards to EV batteries. Safely taking products out of the market is just as important as putting them into the market. So it’s not just about battery collection as such, it’s about designing a way to collect and treat them that is safe and efficient.
The report states that, although battery design for disassembly and lifetime extension is a high priority for future industry, there are currently limited incentives for automotive companies to do so – what incentives could be introduced to facilitate better battery design?
Legally, the industry has to comply with extended producer responsibility. Any OEM has to make sure batteries from their vehicles are collected and treated responsibly. What we need to do, is design for disassembly, so that this value can be captured quickly. It’s also about changing the business case. The narrative we use should be focused on life extension, which brings benefits for everyone involved – the recyclers, the OEMs and dealerships.
Renault has shown that vehicle component remanufacturing can create very substantial gains. They’ve built a dedicated remanufacturing plant, where they send all the parts that are faulty. At the plant, these are remanufactured and later sent for warranty replacements. This creates a stronger business case for Renault, as they’re able to extend the product’s first life by enabling serviceability and achieve a lower level of emissions from the production of their vehicles.
The report briefly talks about the adoption of EVs and how, increasingly, EVs are far less polluting than ICE vehicles, even when factoring in the GHG emissions during production. This is something that the wider public does not yet recognise. What are your thoughts on the importance of public acceptance of EVs and, in your opinion, what could HSSMI do to facilitate public acceptance of EVs?
Public acceptance makes everything a lot easier. From an engineer’s perspective, we want to create something that people like, so if people take on EVs out of sheer knowledge that they are better for the environment than internal combustion engines – that’s something we’re very happy to see.
This report includes several important and interesting statistics, which can be further used to raise awareness. It’s an educational tool for the industry, governments, OEMs etc. However, the important thing is that we’re not necessarily fighting against ICE (internal combustion engines), we’re just showing that batteries are a sustainable way of powering the world, as we move away from fossil fuels.
According to the report, “innovation along the value chain is needed to improve value creation and reduce environmental impacts”. What are some of the more recent innovations in batteries than can help achieve the aims of the report?
Some of the biggest innovations are around creating EVs that are actually practical to use – reducing cost per kWh and extending the lives of the batteries themselves. Reducing costs makes EVs more affordable and increases their ability to compete with ICE vehicles; extending battery life enables considerations about the second life of batteries. Shared mobility has also helped make EVs a more feasible option for businesses. Just like data transfer between stakeholders in the supply chain, encapsulated in the ‘battery passport’ concept, which is gradually getting traction and would radically support remanufacturers, recyclers and dealerships, as they know what they’re getting, and ultimately the OEM which would have feedback information supporting future battery development. The next great innovation will probably be around the EV business case. Knowledge needs to move amongst stakeholders, so something needs to change in the current model. We all want to create benefit for ourselves, first and foremost, so there’s a business case angle.
The report suggests that increased demand for batteries will drive us to deep seabed mining, which until recently wasn’t economically feasible, and that raw materials from the deep seas could become a source for batteries by as early as 2030. What are your thoughts on this?
On land, we have limited resources, but if we are able to explore the deep sea, we might find new, alternative sources that meet environmental and social targets as well. In comparison, oil and gas is relatively easy to obtain and we don’t have to worry about depleting the sources anytime soon. With battery sources, that’s not the case – as said before, battery raw materials are often only available in specific locations, so diversifying the supply is something that we need to look at. It’s also important to keep in mind that, although we have to ensure battery longevity, this should not be an excuse for not using the available resources efficiently.
The report puts quite a lot of emphasis on the role of digital technology and data traceability in achieving circular economy objectives and highlights the concept of “battery passports”, which would provide transparency with respect to key life cycle performance data for batteries. What are your thoughts on using digital technology in battery management, in a wider sense, and the feasibility of creating battery passports?
The concept of material passports have been around for over a decade. The concept lends itself very well to batteries. A battery passport would help track battery value, performance and material life, making the right data available to each relevant stakeholder, without compromising the sensitive data of other stakeholders, similar to the way blockchain works. Lithium-ion cells have a degradation side to them, so it’s vitally important to understand the health of the battery and how it is performing. Battery passports could also help optimise battery life and identify the point at which it’s best to take the battery out of the vehicle and give it a second life.
About the impact and next steps
How far from the ideal state are we currently in the UK?
The UK buys raw materials or already produced cells and packed batteries from other countries, then we use them in various application, but at end-of-life, there are no recycling facilities for batteries in the UK, so we have to export them. There’s very little battery manufacture currently happening, but the Faraday Battery Challenge is putting funds towards advancing the industry and improving the UK’s ability to manufacture, recover and recycle batteries. We don’t have an existing infrastructure, so we can decide how we build it, which is rather exciting. Many OEMs are planning to introduce their EV offerings in the UK, but it’s important that they have foresight about how batteries are managed in the UK.
Now that the report has been put in front of world leaders, how can decision-makers and legislators help achieve the ideal state as outlined in the report?
Standardisation is a big one here, especially standards around remanufacturing and what a sustainable battery looks like. Other than passing binding legislation that requires commitments from the industry, governments can also help educate and raise awareness in the wider public. There’s also quite a bit of legislative ambiguity out there; clarifying and amending that is important. Current legislation does not fully account for EV batteries. For instance, the recovery targets set are oversimplified. The bottom line is that the industry is changing rapidly and legislation is struggling to keep up. Of course, we’d also encourage governments to follow and support the work of the Global Battery Alliance, as there will be more publications from the Working Groups. Moreover, we must praise the work of the Faraday Battery Challenge and Faraday Institution in driving the necessary changes the UK industry needs to be competitive.
What are the next steps from here?
It depends on what part of the supply chain you’re in. As a consumer, you can make sure you know where the batteries in your gadgets are coming from and how environmentally friendly their production has been. Governments, as mentioned already, can support the industry with standards and legislation. Industry needs to team up and be pro-active in looking for solutions. They can join governmental initiatives to make sure governments are on the right track with legislation and standards.
How will the report influence the work we do here at HSSMI?
The report backs up what we’ve been working on internally for years. However, the report has much more weight to it, thanks to the large consortium – spanning different countries and industry sectors – that has participated in drafting it. Our work seems to align with this, which we’re happy to see, as that means we’re heading in the right direction. The results of the report will definitely inform our future work, as we continue to push for batteries and EVs.
What, personally, does this mean to you, having had the chance to contribute to this report?
(Alberto) The impact this can have is thrilling! I’m proud to have been able to contribute to a report which will be put in front of international leaders and which will support the change that desperately needs to happen. It actually feels like I am doing something to tackle climate change.
(Robin) We always saw the battery value chain as a key issue, where others only considered it as an afterthought. It’s great to see it get the recognition it deserves! We’re helping design a better industry, which is exciting.