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Ecological transition or genuine technological revolution?

Ecological transition or genuine technological revolution?

The crisis in the supply of microprocessors and raw materials and the consequent and unexpected increase in their prices which began starting from 2021 has required, and still requires, the development of intelligent solutions necessary for finding valid alternatives to, and therefore the replacement of, components today considered critical.   

The rapid validation of alternative solutions, with accelerated functional tests, will have to be one of the principle strategic activities of every industry with the aim of finding components useful for improving environmental impact and for facing unstable supplies from distant countries, in this way avoiding line stoppages and improving the ecological footprint of production.

Sustainable mobility is able to guarantee the production of vehicles that produce increasingly less pollution thanks to sophisticated and complex gas treatment devices, as well as hybridisation, electrification and the development of new full-electric vehicles. The growing technological complexity is causing in fact, a general increase in the prices of electronic components and the raw materials necessary to produce them, from finished semiconductors to lithium, cobalt, copper and aluminium. As a result, industry will have to react by continually seeking better, more secure, ecological and economic materials, thanks to the work and commitment of research centres and consultancy firms like Reinova.

Lithium or sodium batteries?

The example of lithium is striking: it’s a metal found today in every rechargeable battery for smartphones, tablets and electric vehicles. The possible shortage, however, of lithium mining capacity could put a strain on future supplies in all the application sectors of this metal, found mainly in Australia, Chile and Bolivia.

In actual fact, it appears that there are already alternatives to lithium, such as sodium, a component extracted from sea salt and from sodium chloride, but is seems that a number of years are needed before being able to start mass production of batteries made with this element.

Technological innovation is crucial

A technological innovation that can make up for the lack of raw materials necessary or the production of rechargeable batteries already, in fact, exists: with the recent 850V recharging process, it is possible to add around 100 km of autonomy to an electric vehicle in only 5 minutes of charging, thus allowing for smaller, less costly and lighter batteries to be transported. This would make electric vehicles more efficient and able to consume less energy to carry the significant weight of the batteries, currently still too big.

The main reason, in fact, for installing large-size lithium batteries in today’s electric cars is perhaps associated with the search for an autonomy similar to vehicles with diesel or petrol endothermic propulsion. While, on the one hand, this would meet the customer’s request in relation to recharging anxieties, it does not, on the other hand, however, take account of the increase in the price of electric vehicles that this causes, a price that is directly correlated to the procurement cost of lithium (calibrated according to the weight).

Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, the analysis and prices company, estimates that prices of lithium carbonate could increase by at least 16% and consequently also of costs of production of the batteries, especially those intended for the mass market.    

Today, the other extremely important raw material for the production of rechargeable batteries is cobalt, extracted largely in the mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the most economically and politically unstable African countries where the mining companies are accused of serious violations of human rights.

Its rarity and the bad reputation of the geographic area where this metal is extracted have provoked an understandable reaction of technological innovation, such as to already lead Panasonic and Samsung to produce the first batteries without cobalt for the largest producer of electric cars, Tesla.

In addition, batteries without cobalt are also considered as safer, even though today they still have a lower autonomy. It is expected that, in the next few years, LFP (lithium-iron-phosphorus) batteries will be increasingly used for electric vehicles, especially were a high autonomy is not required.

In conclusion, the difficulty in obtaining lithium and cobalt (but also aluminium and copper) is driving the research and development of alternative technological solutions that reduce production prices on the one hand, and on the other hand make the supply chain more stable through the use of safe materials with low environmental impact, and which are common and not rare, without excluding recycled materials. 

This is one of the reasons why Reinova supports its partners in the continual search of safe technical solutions which are not only economically advantageous but, above all, environmentally sustainable.