The U.S. needs to create a “road map” to the batteries of the future even as it solves existing supply chain issues, experts told a House panel on Thursday.
President Biden has pushed domestic automakers to electrify their vehicle fleets, a goal that in the short term will require securing supply chains for critical minerals like lithium and cobalt that are used in lithium-ion batteries, experts say.
But in the long term, the U.S. must proactively look ahead to the next generation of batteries — and the new mines, laboratories and refineries that will help develop them, figures representing science, government and industry told members of the House Science Committee at a field hearing in Chicago.
“Asian countries helped move ahead because they had a road map of where they thought the market would be,” Venkat Srinivasan, director of the Argonne Collaborative Center for Energy Storage Science, told lawmakers.
“So we need to ask what chemistries might be the answer — two years from today, what do we need?” Srinavasan asked. “Ten years from now, what do we need? And then start to build out the industrial base that allows us to meet it.”
Earlier this month, Reps. Sean Casten (D-Ill.) and Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) introduced a bill to direct the Department of Energy to make a practical plan for how to adapt the current electrical system to meet the needs of the surging number of electric vehicles (EVs).
Reaching those goals will require the U.S. to recommit to technologies it once developed — but spent decades neglecting, said Chibueze Amanchukwu, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago.
While an early leader in lithium-ion battery technology and photovoltaic panels, “America lagged in translating these discoveries to the marketplace and fell behind its counterparts in Europe and Asia,” Amanchukwu said.
Making up lost ground means largely building a new series of supply chains — fast, according to Chris Nevers, senior policy director at EV manufacturer Rivian.
American EV manufacturers currently rely on lithium-ion batteries — scaled up versions of models that power devices such as smartphones and computers, and ones whose key mining and processing sites lie almost exclusively outside U.S. borders, as The Hill previously reported.
Securing the supplies necessary for EV batteries requires a multi-step process, the House panel noted, starting with miners digging up raw lithium, manganese, graphite and cobalt, followed by processors successfully pulling out the pure metals.
These pure metals are combined into battery components such as anodes, cathodes and electrolytes, which are then combined into battery cells that make up completed batteries.
Virtually every step of this process — and every resource deposit it depends on — is currently located outside the United States.
That means that while manufacturers need to secure foreign supplies and develop domestic mines, they also need to develop tools, policies and technologies to better recycle what they have and to look for alternatives, according to Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.), who chaired the hearing.
While the U.S. will have to take care to balance mining with environmental and land rights concerns, that goal is attainable, Nevers said.
“At least from the raw material aspect as far as what they call ‘midstream’ — that could all be done here. We have refineries here. We have the talent,” Nevers said.
But over the longer term, the United States needs “pie-in-the-sky” battery technologies that make use of the metals it has in large supply, Amanchukwu said, particularly ones better suited to heavy applications like air travel, cargo ships and transport trucks.
“We need storage that enables deep decarbonisation that is also inherently safe, with abundant materials, that can last many decades and be completely recycled,” Srinavasan said.
Since “such chemistry is not achievable with incremental improvements in today’s lithium ion batteries,” the U.S. needs to fund “a basic science approach that brings new insights into battery storage,” Srinivasan said.
This push for new technologies will force Congress “to sort of become a venture capitalist and decide which minerals to invest in,” said Foster.
To some extent, the U.S. simply needs to support companies already exploring lithium alternatives, Amanchukwu said, while Srinavasan emphasized “substitutions for nickel and cobalt and these materials” as the highest priority.
The inter-agency Federal Consortium on Advanced Batteries (FCAB) seeks to eliminate the need for both cobalt and nickel in lithium-ion batteries by 2030, according to a House fact sheet.
But pushing for a major increase in the size of the U.S. electric vehicle fleet raises another vexing issue, said Casten: how the U.S. can generate enough low-carbon electricity to meet demand and get it where it’s needed.
“We need to build more wires, we need to build them in the right places — which is not necessarily where the loads are right now,” Casten said.
Another pressing question is around storing energy at times when intermittent renewables like wind, hydropower and solar are abundant so it’s available when they aren’t, experts noted.
With long-term battery storage currently prohibitively expensive, “we have to start looking at alternatives like things like hydrogen as a means of storing energy,” Srinavasan said.
“Unfortunately, that requires us to store the hydrogen, which means that the location matters a lot. So it’s going to work in some parts of the country, not in others.”