In the drive toward a future no longer dependent on burning fossil fuels for energy generation, several technologies have become front runners in the race to reduce carbon emissions and improve air quality. Among the most significant are lithium-ion batteries, biofuels, and renewable energy sources, such as wind power. Aside from lithium, which is, of course, an element, it’s not immediately obvious that trace elemental analysis plays any part in developing these technologies and ensuring their clean and safe implementation. In this series of three blog posts, I’ll explore each of these three technologies, starting with lithium-ion batteries, and examine where trace elemental analysis fits in.
Lithium-ion batteries and their role in the development of electric vehicles
Since their initial development in the 1970s and early 1980s, lithium-ion batteries have become a ubiquitous source of convenient energy for a variety of devices from mobile phones and laptops to cameras and electric bicycles. The world’s first lithium-ion battery-powered car, the Nissan Prairie Joy EV, with a range of up to 200 km (124 miles) of range and a top speed of 120 kph (75 mph), was launched in 1996 and in total, just 30 of these vehicles were sold. Since then, lithium-ion battery technology has gone on to become central to the development of a new generation of electric cars, aimed at the fast-growing, climate-aware consumer market. In 2019, 2.3 million electric vehicles — incorporating battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) — were sold worldwide. By as soon as 2026, it’s estimated that this number will climb to around 8 million per year.1
Considerations for addressing the increasing demand for lithium-ion batteries
With this rapidly growing demand for electric vehicles, two significant questions arise, namely where is all the lithium (as well as other elements involved in battery production, such as nickel, cobalt, and manganese) going to come from and how will we deal with recycling, reprocessing and reusing the metals encased within spent batteries. The main answer to the first question is various forms of mining. Lithium is primarily mined from brines, pegmatites, and sedimentary rocks, and there are significant reserves in several countries, notably Chile, Australia, Argentina and China.2 Recently, there have been indications that extracting lithium from seawater might also be economically viable. With respect to recycling used batteries, multiple companies worldwide have developed (and are continuing to develop) lithium and other metal recovery methods based on mechanical, hydrometallurgical and pyrometallurgical processing steps.3 These processes are currently more expensive than mining lithium, but with the growth expected in electric vehicle sales in the next couple of decades, costs are anticipated to fall as the number of used batteries and the corresponding demand for reprocessed battery materials dramatically increases.
Where does elemental analysis fit in with the lithium battery lifecycle?
The requirement for elemental analysis in the lithium-ion battery lifecycle starts before the battery development and production processes. The yield and elemental purity of lithium salts extracted from minerals, brine fields, and (potentially) seawater both need to be determined and certified before these materials are sent for further processing into the lithium-based materials required for the battery components. These materials themselves also require elemental analysis to ensure their composition and purity prior to use. Lithium-ion batteries are composed of a cathode, anode, electrolyte, and separator, and of these, lithium alloys are required to make the cathode and electrolyte. There are five main types of cathode material, namely lithium cobalt oxide (LiCoO2 (LCO)), lithium nickel cobalt aluminium oxide (LiNICoAlO2 (NCA)), lithium manganese oxide (LiMn2O4 (LMO)), lithium nickel cobalt manganese oxide (LiNiCoMnO2 (NCM)) and lithium iron phosphate (LiFePO4 (LFP)). Of these, NCA, NCM, and LFP are mainly used in electric vehicle Li-ion batteries. The type of cathode used determines factors such as how much charge the battery can hold and how safe it is to use (there have been multiple incidents of lithium batteries catching fire), so measuring the elemental composition of cathode materials is also a key part of the battery development and production process. The second component of the battery that requires elemental analysis is the electrolyte. The most common liquid electrolyte material is lithium hexafluorophosphate (LiPF6) mixed with ethylene carbonate, dimethyl carbonate, and diethyl carbonate solvents. The presence of impurities such as water and transition metals in the electrolyte significantly degrade the charge carrying capacity of the battery and cause it to degrade faster during charging/discharging cycles, so ensuring that the reagents used to make the electrolyte have low impurity levels is vital.
What trace elemental analysis techniques are suitable for battery research, development, and production?