The development of energy storage systems is advancing on an almost daily basis, and this technological capacity is fundamental for the sector. The objectives of effectiveness, efficiency, and sustainability are cardinal points of innovation for the future of important activities like electrical mobility and communication. To delve deeper into this energy sector, we spoke with the Spanish Technology and Innovation Platform for Energy Storage, supported by the Ministry of Science and Innovation.
The lithium sector’s outlook, based primarily on the potential that new forms of mobility represent, is really positive. The so-called ‘white gold’, increasingly sought after in markets, is essential for producing batteries for electric cars. The Spanish Technology and Innovation Platform for Energy Storage (BatteryPlat), supported by the Ministry of Science and Innovation, tells us about this promising future, which extends beyond vehicles. “It is important to note that it is a mature market with several niches, we have consumer electronic equipment such as telephones, laptops, tablets; and mobility, within which we have electric vehicle batteries; and, finally, stationary energy applications. In this last niche, we found two categories, utility scale, for large storage facilities and behind the meter, for domestic devices,” they point out. The growing demand makes it a competitive market, with prices and delivery times being highly sought after by buyers. Regarding the various niches that have been opened up with the use of lithium, each with specific technical characteristics, in Spain they have been observed “both in stationary energy applications and in the electric mobility market,” given that Spain is a leader in manufacturing vehicles within Europe.
Behind the development of lithium storage systems is a whole family of sub-technologies, depending on the components of the battery. “Within the composition we find electrodes and an electrolyte, and depending on the materials used for these two, we will have different subfamilies of Lithium-ion batteries. Each one can have different performance levels that make them optimal for applications in the aforementioned large niches,” BatteryPlat’s management assures. They also indicate that the greatest evolution comes from the applications developed towards consumer and mobility electronics. “Now we must refine the performance of batteries for vehicles, as there is a tendency to seek greater autonomy, and that of stationary energy sources.” Innovation also seeks to avoid critical materials, especially those that have a specific geographic location and those that hinder the recycling process.
But what are the primary risks that must be taken into account for lithium’s use and storage? BatteryPlat points out that the main concern arises mainly from the material included in Lithium-ion batteries, which, due to their size and capacity, contain significant quantities of this metal. Improper use, storage, or transportation of these batteries can result in strong exothermic chemical reactions that sometimes cause the battery to catch fire or even explode. “The highest risk situations for Lithium-ion batteries occur during rapid or ultra-fast charging, during storage or use at high temperatures (above 60ºC) or during recharging at very low temperatures (below 0ºC),” they assure. In response to this risk, fire-resistant additives have been developed that can reduce flammability, and investigations are being carried out on “replacing electrolytes in commercial Lithium-ion batteries with solid electrolytes, which have a higher thermal stability range than liquids and that hinder or impede the growth of metal Lithium dendrites in situations of abusive use, for example, during ultra-fast recharging or very low temperatures.”
Outlook and sustainability
The lithium sector, an infallible path in the future of energy, has a series of challenges and opportunities with respect to supply. Its profiles are written almost every day, thanks to a constant flow of ongoing research and testing. “The most widespread lines of research today are oriented towards what are called Generation 3b and Generation 4 batteries. Generation 3b is expected to be ready in approximately 2025, and will be based on the use of cathodes with higher operating voltages and anodes containing silicon or silicon and graphite composite materials,” indicates the Spanish platform. Generation 4, which won’t be consolidated until 2030, is based on the use of solid electrolytes that facilitate the use of metallic lithium anodes; now unfeasible due to the risks they pose in conjunction with liquids. “Technologies based on conversion reactions such as Lithium-Sulfur batteries that combine metal Lithium anodes with very low-cost sulfur cathodes are also anticipated.”
In addition to these technical developments, efforts aimed at exploring the reuse of batteries in second life applications and the recycling of the most valuable battery components as they reach the end of their useful life, including recycling Lithium along with other metals, have become increasingly relevant in recent years. These objectives are framed in the task of mitigating the environmental impact, supported by the underlying achievement of a circular economy, in which “battery waste becomes a secondary raw material, which re-enters the manufacturing chain and reduces the use of raw materials obtained from mining.” BatteryPlat insists on this potential reuse. “For example, when a mobility material reaches 70% capacity, it is no longer attractive for use in an electric vehicle, but it is still valid for stationary use, giving it a second life as a battery in the energy field. In order to achieve this, ensuring the reliability of the structure when it is installed in a living or industrial installation is necessary. This safety is obtained by having standards and procedures for testing and certifying the suitability of the battery for this new use.”
In fact, when we ask the management of the Spanish Technology and Innovation Platform for Energy Storage about the keys for the future of lithium storage, they indicate, in addition to the strict security required for the activity, “an appropriate management of the circular economy and economies of scale.” In this sector, and in the progress of products adapted to the requirements of each market niche, they see the platform as a fundamental factor in the potential for economic development. “It would be ideal if we could identify which aspects of the value chain offer opportunities for national companies within Spain. That is why at BatteryPlat, we have developed ‘Technological and Industrial Capacities Maps’, which we use to record the location of available niche opportunities in order to find relevant industrial agents”, they conclude.
BatteryPlat is the Spanish technological energy storage platform. Its focus includes the entire spectrum of energy storage technologies: electrochemical, chemical, thermal, mechanical, and electromagnetic storage. It has 90 entities, comprised of companies, SMEs, start-ups, universities, public research bodies, research centers, and other administrative entities.
BatteryPlat’s objective is to promote the development of energy storage technologies irrespective of their level of technological maturity. It has the support of the Ministry of Science and Innovation, which recognizes it as a Spanish technological energy storage platform, as well as the protection of the Ministry for Ecological Transition and the Demographic Challenge, which included it in the Energy Storage Strategy Document. The quotes included in this article are taken from an interview conducted with the association’s Luis Manuel Santos (Chairman) and Jesús Palma (Vice President).