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Early Origins: Creating the Recipe for the Modern Battery

Hannah Marcos, 2021 Summer Internship Program
Content Writing & SEO • July 5, 2021

Batteries have come a long way since Benjamin Franklin first used the term to describe one of his experiments in 1749, or when the first working battery was created by Alessandro Volta in the year 1800.

This technology has become incredibly diversified – not characterized by any specific purpose or chemical composition. Millions are used every year, both single-use and rechargeable in kind. The demand has been increasing in direct proportion to society’s enthusiasm towards portable devices, smart appliances, and electric vehicles.

They can contain common metals such as lead, cadmium, and nickel, whereas some require critical minerals like lithium and graphite.

Critical minerals are difficult to substitute, and access to them has a large economic and political influence in the global economy.

In short, batteries are the result of electrochemical reactions between various metals. Harnessing the potential of this concept means further changing the nature of electricity for consumers. At first, people were confined to the limits of a singular chemical reaction. Batteries even needed to be stationary as to not mix the dry and liquid components; however, this article will explain the attributes of the modern battery.

Applications in the 21st Century: How Lead-Acid, Alkaline, and Lithium-ion Batteries have Dominated the Market

Beginning in the 20th century, society was altered by the beginnings of compact, affordable, and portable electronic devices that were made possible when batteries entered the market.

Now, there is not a tech company whose products do not include the use of batteries, therefore making consumers equally reliant. Battery technology manifests in a variety of different shapes, sizes, and compositions to cater to the huge range of power demands; however, they ultimately all share the same components when it comes to creating electricity.

Consider the Alkaline battery; over 10 billion have already been produced, and they are available in every convenience store in the form of AA, AAA, C, and D sized cells. 

They all are created with the following:

Containers: made of steel and both houses the battery components while helping to form the cathode.

Cathodes: created using either manganese dioxide, or interlayered with carbon, and are reduced during the battery’s chemical reaction.

Separators: this is a varied material that is used to keep electrodes separated when a dive is turned on, thus closing the circuit.

Anodes: these electrodes are oxidized during the chemical reaction.

Electrolytes: a means for ions to move throughout the battery, which enables the ionic current.

Collectors: conducts and transfers energy to the outside of the cell for use.

While these components may be made of different materials (i.e., using zinc and manganese, whereas some lithium-ion batteries use lithium, cobalt, and other combined metals), the construction and purpose is the same. In comparison to lithium-ion units, alkaline batteries have comparable energy densities when interlayered with copper ions, which also make them more easily recycled and rechargeable.

While both lithium batteries and lead-acid batteries are found propelling consumers along roadways, the chemistry is very contrasting. Originally, the lead-acid batteries used positive lead dioxide pastes, negative sponge lead plates, and sulfuric acid as an electrolyte. Now, however, the current and surge capabilities are being rivaled by electric vehicle (EV) batteries.

Common EV batteries are either NCA (lithium, nickel, cobalt, and aluminum) or NMC (lithium, nickel, manganese, and cobalt).

Mining Components for Batteries

With the battery types mentioned above, there are also the batteries specifically made for niches like nickel-cadmium (NiCad) for power tools, as well as button cells for watches and hearing aids. Most contemporary batteries use similar components, which are usually most concentrated in small geographic regions; or manufacturing controlled by one global power. For many cases, this refers to China, who has been the biggest contributor to this international market. The most notable and controversial of these resources are the following:

Lithium

This is one of the critical earth elements and found in EV batteries alongside cobalt, as well as portable electronics like phones and laptops. This is a common element – ranking 32nd most common globally – and can be reused continuously.

The largest sources of lithium are closed-basin brines, and Australia ranks highest as a lithium producer, followed by Chile, China, Argentina, and Zimbabwe in the top five. This list may not be maintained; however, as this does not reflect the actual reserves that exist with mining potential. According to that list, Chile ranks first with having over 55% of the world’s lithium reserves, and the United States a far off fifth with 4.1%.

China has over 80 lithium-ion battery factories with over a hundred planned, making other countries’ manufacturing efforts pale in comparison. Europe is also planned to have infrastructure that nearly doubles the United States by the end of the decade. Another concern dwells in Chile, where the majority of the water in Salar de Atacama – a dry, desert area – is being used to pump out brines; in turn, pollution and water scarcity has become a growing problem for the local population.

Cobalt

This resource is one of the necessary elements of electric and hybrid vehicle batteries. It is also fully recyclable.

Cobalt is dependent on the mining of copper and nickel as a byproduct, and while it can be found in most rocks, the majority of its usable reserves is found in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This causes problems, as this region is very politically unstable, and while they are the largest producer of mined cobalt, the majority of refined cobalt comes from China. Because of this, the unrestricted export of lithium is in question for the future.

Nickel

Nickel is easily found and has been just as easily mined, making it less centralized in comparison to the other metals listed. Indonesia has the largest nickel reserve in the world, followed by Australia. In terms of actual production, Indonesia and Australia are separated by the Philippines, Russia, and New Caledonia.

Because the nickel reserves that are easier to mine have been found and extracted, there are environmental concerns for deeper mining going forward. It will create more waste and require more energy, potentially contributing to emissions.

Cadmium

Batteries that incorporate cadmium do so as negative electrodes. It is often used in power tools as a nickel-cadmium (Ni-Cd) battery but can also be used industrially for back-up systems regarding aviary, railroad, power plant, and ground systems. They have a high energy density, more so than even lead-acid batteries.

China produces the most cadmium, with the Republic of Korea producing barely half as much in second place. This metal, like cobalt, is a byproduct. In this case, it is derived from processing sulfide ore concentrates or refining copper-zinc and lead ores.

Zinc

Zinc-based batteries utilize this metal as anodes and are often created for small, low-energy household appliances (clock and remote controls). The type of zinc most commonly used for batteries are zinc-chloride cells, which compose an anode paste. It is a low-cost metal and compatible with an array of electrolytes. Batteries that use zinc are also less flammable, and contemporary models were recently found to be rechargeable.

While Australia has the largest amount of zinc reserves – almost 70 million metric tons, China and Peru produce more.

Manganese

Manganese, like nickel, is very abundant and ranks 12th on the list of the most abundant elements in the world. It is used most widely in alkaline batteries, as it contributes to high capacity, rechargeability, and increased safety in batteries.  

South Africa is the largest producer of manganese, the country alone retaining over 70% of the globe’s reserves in the Kalahari Desert. Australia is the second-largest producer with the fourth largest reserves, with China and Gabon trailing behind.

Lead

Lead is most famously used to make lead-acid batteries. The lead anode and lead dioxide cathode allow for current to reverse pass, which made it the predecessor for all rechargeable batteries. They are still used today in car engines and grid systems.

China is by far the greatest producer of lead, leading by over 40%, and loosely followed by Australia. Lead ores, which are concentrated, smelted, and refined to produce the refined lead used in batteries, are usually found alongside other metals like zinc and copper.

Lead is now commonly recycled. Millions of tons in the US are taken from lead-acid batteries and other scraps to be reused annually.

Graphite

Graphite is attractive for its reversible electrochemical capabilities, or its role in making batteries rechargeable. It is optimized in lithium-ion batteries using electrodes. It is used to make anodes for fuel cells, semiconductors and LED’s with no found substitute. It can be mined and synthetically made from petroleum coke.

China is by far the largest producer of graphite, but while it accounted for over 60% of mining last year, plant closures due to environmental concerns may impact its performance.

Mozambique has the largest known graphite reserve internationally; however, there is a reduction in production following unstable economic factors. Brazil, Madagascar, and India also have large reserves and make up the remaining top five of producers.

Future Prospects for Obtaining Critical Minerals and Rare Metals

It is in the best interest of everyone to protect the resources batteries require and recycle the battery components already distributed to consumers. It is now not only a question of transitioning to clean energy, but to do so without causing adverse environmental effects, negatively impacting local mining populations, or forming unbalanced dependence on other countries.

Companies should also focus on sourcing their materials ethically, as well as sustainably. For instance, Apple has made progress towards utilizing recycled and renewable materials in their manufacturing process. The “Responsible Cobalt Initiative” was formed to treat cobalt supply chains with transparency, responsibility, and communication concerning both the Democratic Republic of Congo and China. This has been backed by large companies such as Samsung and HP. Additionally, Tesla has recently projected to spend billions of dollars on responsibly mined resources from Australia for their lithium and nickel battery necessities.

On an individual level, popular battery suppliers like Energizer have worked to make recycling easier for the average consumer by working with Call2Recycle, who has recycled hundreds of millions of pounds of batteries thus far. Other countries and states within the U.S. have released guidelines as to how consumers can dispose of or recycle batteries from our old devices, allowing participants of every scale a part in working towards a carbon-neutral energy system.

With green energy and rechargeable batteries on the rise, the demand for raw and recycled materials will continue as well. While China currently has a vast and strong hold over the associated resources needed for the modern battery, there is great potential for global partnerships and advancements that could balance the economy as we enter into a new, green era.

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