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22/06/2024
Mining News

Diving deeper: Manganese and emerging battery technologies beyond lithium

Lithium batteries have revolutionized the energy storage landscape, particularly in electric vehicles (EVs) and various consumer electronics. They power everything from cellphones and laptops to electric toothbrushes and vaping devices, and their role in advancing the adoption of renewable energy technologies cannot be overstated. An average EV battery incorporates around 8 kg of lithium, while some, like those used in Tesla vehicles, can require as much as 62.6 kg. However, the production and lifecycle of lithium batteries pose significant challenges, including high costs, environmental degradation and ethical concerns surrounding lithium mining practices.

The hidden costs of lithium batteries

Environmental and social impacts

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The extraction and production of lithium are resource-intensive, requiring vast amounts of water and technology that heavily relies on other metals. This process not only leads to significant mineral waste and soil erosion but also contaminates water sources. Moreover, lithium mining has been linked to unethical labor practices, including child and forced labor, particularly in countries rich in lithium reserves such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Recycling challenges

Recycling lithium batteries is complex and costly, resulting in substantial annual waste. This inefficiency further exacerbates the environmental impact and raises questions about the sustainability of relying solely on lithium for future energy needs.

Manganese: A promising alternative?

As the search for more sustainable and ethical alternatives to lithium intensifies, manganese has emerged as a potential contender. Historically, cobalt, nickel and lithium have been the primary metals used in EV batteries. However, manganese’s role as a cathode material in battery technology is gaining attention due to its potential to enhance safety, energy density and cost-effectiveness.

Advantages of Manganese

  • Cost and availability: Manganese is more abundant and cheaper to mine than lithium, making it a cost-effective alternative. It is also less associated with the severe human rights issues that plague cobalt and nickel mining.
  • Battery performance: According to Martin Kepman, CEO of Manganese X Energy Corp, manganese can improve battery density, capacity, rechargeability, safety, and longevity. This positions manganese as a viable candidate for disrupting the current dominance of lithium-ion batteries.

Industry adoption

Companies like Tesla and Volkswagen are actively exploring manganese batteries, with Elon Musk highlighting their potential to drive the transition to greener technology. Manganese is typically used in combination with lithium in various battery types, such as lithium manganese oxide (LMO) batteries and lithium iron manganese phosphate batteries (LiFeMnPO4).

Current market trends

Nickel manganese cobalt oxide (NMC) batteries, which include manganese, accounted for 60% of the market share in 2022, reflecting a growing preference for batteries that reduce reliance on nickel and cobalt.

Challenges and research needs

Despite its promise, manganese is predominantly used alongside lithium, and significant research and development are required to elevate manganese to a primary role in EV battery technology.

Exploring other alternatives to lithium batteries

Sodium-ion batteries

Sodium-ion batteries are emerging as a less toxic alternative to lithium batteries. They are energy-efficient, fast-charging, and stable at extreme temperatures, which helps prevent overheating. However, they store less energy than lithium batteries and face challenges in terms of supply chain development and scalability.

Zinc-based batteries

Zinc-ion batteries are another environmentally friendly alternative. They are abundant, inexpensive to mine, and low-maintenance, making them ideal for low-power applications. However, their medium energy density limits their suitability for high-energy applications like EVs.

Solid-state batteries

Solid-state batteries represent a significant leap forward in battery technology. They are compact, powerful, and more sustainable than lithium batteries, with a higher capacity, faster recharging times, and a smaller carbon footprint. Although they are currently more expensive to produce and require further development of supply chains, their potential to revolutionize energy storage is considerable.

Conclusion

The search for alternatives to lithium batteries is critical for the future of energy storage, particularly in the context of growing environmental and ethical concerns. While manganese presents a promising option with significant advantages in cost, availability, and performance, other alternatives like sodium-ion, zinc-based, and solid-state batteries also hold potential for creating a more sustainable and ethical energy landscape. The transition to these alternatives requires substantial research and development, but their adoption could lead to a greener and more equitable future for energy storage.

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