Recycling batteries is the key to securing enough raw materials to power the surge in electric vehicle demand, according to a winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
The world's transition to battery power, including electric vehicles, is set to boost demand for commodities from copper to nickel and cobalt. But there are also concerns that miners will not be able to expand raw material supply fast enough, and any shortfall will offer bigger opportunities for recycling. China has already emerged as a leader in the field.
Recycling batteries will be economic if it is done on a large scale, said Akira Yoshino, a Japanese chemist who was awarded the prize with two others for their pioneering work on modern lithium-ion batteries.
"The point is whether EV batteries can be recycled. The cost should pay off if all of waste car batteries in Japan are collected and processed," he said.
The next mission for the industry is to increase the amount of solar and wind energy that can be stored in batteries used in cars, Yoshino said.
After around 2025, when Yoshino predicts EVs will make up about 15 percent of new car sales worldwide, the auto industry will likely see electrification incorporated into car-sharing and self-driving vehicles, he said. "The ideal style for the future is people don’t own a car and a self-driving vehicle is coming whenever anyone wants to use the service."
Yoshino,71, of Asahi Kasei Corp. and Meijo University, was awarded the prize alongside M. Stanley Whittingham, a British-American professor at the State University of New York at Binghamton and German-born John Goodenough, professor at the University of Texas.
Whittingham, 77, first discovered in the 1970s it was possible to shuttle lithium atoms from one electrode to another at room temperature, facilitating recharge-ability.
When the battery material -- lithium -- proved prone to catching fire, it took the work of Goodenough, 97, to make it into a usable device. Yoshino's research on ensuring chemical stability crowned the current lithium-ion battery.
Lithium-ion batteries are revolutionizing everything from mobile phones to the future of the global car industry. "They have laid the foundation of a wireless, fossil fuel-free society, and are of the greatest benefit to humankind," the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in a statement on Wednesday.
"This lightweight, rechargeable and powerful battery is now used in everything from mobile phones to laptops and electric vehicles," the academy said. "It can also store significant amounts of energy from solar and wind power, making possible a fossil fuel-free society."
The product "is changing the way we do many things, the way we interact with each other and the physical environment, the way we consume energy," said Colin McKerracher, an analyst at BloombergNEF. "The amount of interaction you have is only going to go up from here.”
Research on better stores of energy started in the early 1970s amid the oil crisis. Working with Exxon Mobil Corp., Whittingham decided to test lithium in anodes, the ‘minus’ side of a battery. Exxon showcased his invention in watches in 1977, but the batteries kept igniting when built larger.
After oil prices slid back, the urgency of developing new battery technology faded. Then-President Ronald Reagan canceled support for energy projects, and while other governments followed suit, work in Japan continued.
In the 1980s, Yoshino, focusing on the problem of chemical stability, managed to combine Goodenough’s advances using cobalt oxide in a battery’s cathode with a carbon anode, which helped boost voltage and therefore the battery’s potential.
Yoshino’s work enabled Sony Corp. to release a lithium ion battery for small electronic devices in 1991 -- jump-starting small recording devices and other electronics.
“As a researcher, you need to have a flexible mind, but at the same time, very obsessive, persistent thinking, without giving up. You need these two things,” Yoshino, 71, said at a news conference in Japan. “I have to say I feel more confused than happy.”
Attempting to pack energy into an ever-smaller and rechargeable carrier has continued since then to reach into more and more industries. The transportation sector is about to enter a new era thanks to batteries that are small and powerful enough to make electric vehicles practical, helping to clean up city centers and lower overall carbon emissions.
Annual prizes for achievements in physics, chemistry, medicine, peace and literature were established in the will of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite, who died in 1896. The total amount for each of the 2019 prizes is 9 million kronor ($906,000).