From Mine to Market: How Cathodes Can Enhance EV Innovation

The solution to climate change is in your hands.

Your smartphones and laptops have been powered by lithium-ion batteries for years, affording them a reputation as the backbone of modern technology. As a response to climate action demands, automakers, miners, and governments are facilitating their application to power cars and store renewable energy—pivoting from a dependence on fossil fuels. Nothing is now more synonymous with lithium-ion batteries than electric vehicles (EVs). However, the current battery manufacturing process wasn’t designed to meet the significant demands of replacing fossil fuels.

The industry’s production volume to date has been negligible compared to the booming market demands it’s striving to fulfill. Global production surges will have significant environmental repercussions, including massive sulfate waste streams, high energy and water consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Until now, these issues have remained largely unnoticed due to China’s dominance in the lithium-ion battery manufacturing sector. Limited environmental regulations and a lack of transparency have facilitated this. Geopolitical concerns are accelerating the build-out of new battery supply chain systems in North America, Europe and the Indo-Pacific region.

As we work towards designing new EV battery supply chains, we must align manufacturing and regulations as well as incentives to create the right framework that encourages local production while avoiding large environmental problems in the decades to come. Instead of asking, “how do we get as many EVs on the road as fast as possible, we need to ask, “is this the right solution?” It is essential that we analyze battery supply chains closely, and make a concerted effort to improve extraction, refining, chemical processes, and manufacturing while minimizing the environmental impact before it is too late.

We are facing a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do it right and re-imagine what fuels our global population of 8 billion. It’s worth mapping out this journey, well ahead of time, to avoid dead ends and looming pitfalls, so that we can keep our foot on the accelerator in the race to achieve net-zero.


Mapping it out

The supply chain for lithium-ion batteries goes through several stages that starts with mining or recycled materials, refining and purification of minerals, and is followed by processes that combine several purified minerals into an energy-storing battery material (known as cathode active material, or CAM), before it is assembled with other battery components to make a battery cell, modules of cells and ultimately battery packs that go into EVs and other energy storage applications. In the chemical production steps that are currently used to make CAM, there are millions of tons of wasteful sodium-sulphate and wastewater being generated as by-product. This has large disposal, recycling and cost implications, and it puts pressure on limited water and clean energy resources, particularly in western economies where permitting and environmental stewardship govern the growth of heavy industries.

The proper recycling and end-of-life management of lithium-ion batteries is another crucial link in the battery supply chain. Recycling is an essential piece of the bigger net-zero challenge; it is not only needed now to recycle mountains of early-stage off-spec battery manufacturing scrap, but we need it in the long run, to increase the available minerals, minimize mining, and help further decarbonization. The lead in lead-acid batteries is 99% recycled and, for lithium-ion batteries, we must not settle for less.

Current lithium-ion battery recycling methods face challenges in recovering each of the valuable minerals and in minimizing the waste; the process mimics the refining of mined materials, and eventually when combined into CAM, using entrenched processes, there will still be large volumes of wastewater and sodium-sulphate generated every time a battery is recycled; this seems counter-productive. Many recyclers have emerged in the race to secure and process today’s battery scraps, but it is only through innovation – and changing how cathode materials are made – that we will be able to eliminate the wasteful by-products and truly lay claim to a circular economy.


The cost of CAM

CAM is the most expensive component in a lithium-ion battery cell, accounting for half the total cost, primarily driven by the cost of lithium, nickel and other raw material inputs. It is also the most energy intensive, environmentally impactful, and sensitive to security of supply. All of this, while also being critical to the performance of a battery, including energy density, power, cycle life and safety, affecting EV range, efficiency and functionality.

Stability and safety are also greatly influenced by CAM, with its resistance to degradation directly affecting the battery’s overall longevity and safety. Developing high-performance, stable cathode materials can result in batteries with extended life cycles and reduced risks of thermal runaway—a critical concern in the industry. This extends to the battery’s charging performance, including its charge and discharge rates. Enhanced charging capabilities are essential for promoting the broader adoption of electric vehicles, as they reduce the time required to recharge the battery, extend the lifecycle of the car, and offer greater driving range to owners. There are different types of CAM, including iron, nickel, manganese and cobalt based chemistries, and each has its pros and cons, relating to range, charging, cost, and other trade-offs, like safety and longevity.

The processes for manufacturing CAM are old and outdated, developed in the early 90’s when production volumes were low, energy efficiency was of minimal concern, and environmental impact was negligible. These processes were not designed with the kind of volumes that are needed for the net-zero future; we change these processes so that we can ramp to produce 10s of millions of tonnes of CAM and we must do so economically and as stewards of the environment, by eliminating energy inefficiencies and wasteful by-product. We must change how CAM is made, while also improving performance and safety, and this will require vision, patience, capital and collaboration across the ecosystem to onramp new technologies while preparing to offramp those that are serving us now.


About Nano One

Nano One is innovating the cathode production process and aims to change how the world makes cathode materials. Their  One-Pot process technology eliminates the need for energy-intensive and lengthy thermal processing steps and their M2CAM® (metal to cathode active material) process, provides the flexibility of sulphate-free input materials—simplifying the supply chain—and eliminates 100% of the sulphate waste, 60% of the water usage and a significant amount of GHG emissions. The One-Pot process also produces a Coated Single Crystal cathode that is less prone to cracking and more durable than the uncoated products, which means a longer-lasting battery. This benefits all the drivers around the battery supply chain, from miners through recycling.

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