Lithium-ion batteries are everywhere today, though mainly in consumer electronics. As renewables and EVs become more common, though, these technologies will become all the more prominent. Consequently, finding ways to lower lithium-ion production costs while maintaining quality is an important step in the fight against climate change.
Many conversations around lithium-ion batteries center around their need to be more sustainable. While that’s a crucial consideration, making them more affordable is also important.
Experts say the world must halve its carbon emissions by 2030 and reach net-zero status by 2050 to prevent a climate crisis. To meet those deadlines, EVs and renewable power must grow more accessible, quickly – and that means lowering costs. If battery production doesn’t cost as much, renewable and EV expenses will fall, too, and convince more people to switch to these more eco-friendly alternatives.
Reducing the cost of lithium-ion battery production will also make it easier to scale up. As a result, more countries can support domestic EV and renewable manufacturing, making these technologies even more accessible and minimizing supply chain emissions.
Thankfully, there are several potential solutions to this issue. Here’s a look at a few of the most promising ways to make battery production cheaper without sacrificing quality.
One of the best ways to reduce battery production costs is to use fewer materials in each battery. In addition to minimizing raw material expenses, this strategy would also make lithium-ion batteries more sustainable by decreasing mining demand.
Some companies have already made breakthroughs in this area, too. The company 24M recently claimed its new semi-solid lithium batteries reduce manufacturing costs by 40% by using fewer materials. The design mixes electrodes directly into the electrolyte without drying, reducing the need for up to 80% of a battery’s inactive materials.
Other solutions may decrease the amount of lithium needed in each battery, helping decrease reliance on one of the most expensive components. As research continues, new ways to use less material per battery will emerge, too.
A similar approach is to use more affordable materials in battery design. While lithium is a non-negotiable part of a lithium-ion battery, other metals and other materials may not be strictly necessary. If manufacturers can find alternatives, it could reduce production costs.
Cobalt has become the focus of many initiatives looking for alternative materials, as it’s expensive and carries a high environmental toll. Researchers at the University of Austin recently found a potential solution. Their battery uses cathodes made of 89% nickel, with manganese and aluminum making up the rest of the components.
While removing cobalt usually means performance drops, these researchers avoided it by distributing ions evenly while forming the cathode. As a result, they can produce high-performing lithium-ion batteries without their least-abundant material.
Another possible way to make lithium-ion battery production cheaper is to tackle the production methods themselves. Complex, multi-step processes mean more specialized equipment and movement in the manufacturing facility. That, in turn, means a greater energy expenditure and longer cycle times, raising costs. Consolidating them could reduce expenses.
Reducing manufacturing steps may require redesigned batteries. Companies can see if small design changes can allow them to perform multiple steps at once or perform some steps faster. Even incremental improvements in this area could add up to considerable savings at scale.
New manufacturing equipment could produce the same results. Moving away from highly specialized tools to larger systems that can do more simultaneously could reduce excess movement and energy, lowering batteries’ end costs.
Similarly, lithium battery manufacturers could try to reduce steps in the supply chain. The longer materials and parts have to travel before final assembly, the more expensive they’ll be. Restructuring supply chains to include closer sources would minimize travel times, reducing fuel expenses and delays.
China accounts for most lithium cell production today, so many battery manufacturers import cells from China. However, there are lithium reserves across the world. Reshoring or near-shoring supply chain facilities to take advantage of closer resources could help reduce dependence on China and the cost of international transport that comes with it.
Supply chain restructuring can apply to more than just lithium, too. Producing these batteries also requires high-purity gases like nitrogen and argon, other metals, and more. If factories can’t find new lithium supplies, they could seek closer suppliers for these other materials, reducing overall transport costs.
Some organizations are focusing on ways to recycle lithium and other materials from old batteries. If manufacturers find a way to do this efficiently at scale, it could reduce material costs and lower the overall production expenses of lithium-ion batteries.
Researchers in Australia found that just 2% of the country’s lithium-ion waste is recycled, presenting a considerable opportunity. While facilities can’t reuse old cathodes, they can extract the lithium from them to use in new components. That extraction can be challenging, but many companies are funding research into new, more efficient ways to do it.
As this research continues, large-scale lithium recycling could become a viable solution. If it does, reducing production costs and mitigating these batteries’ environmental impact would be far easier.
Lithium-ion battery production could also take cues from process improvements in the general manufacturing industry. While more specialized, sector-specific changes may yield the most significant results, general manufacturing improvements can still offer cost-saving opportunities.
Lean production methods, which center around minimizing waste and maximizing productivity, are promising. Restructuring workflows and implementing automation could help eliminate unnecessary motion, energy consumption, wasted time, and other inefficiencies. Technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and digital twins can reveal opportunities to implement these changes.
Lithium-ion batteries hold considerable potential for the fight against climate change. If the world wants to make the most of this technology, it should start by rethinking its production.
Manufacturers can decrease battery production costs through several means. As the industry grows and research continues, these methods will become more effective and new solutions will emerge. When that happens, lithium-ion batteries can finally deliver on their environmental promise.
Emily Newton is a freelance writer with over six years of experience writing science environmental articles. She’s also the Editor-In-Chief of Revolutionized, an online magazine that shares the latest innovations in science and technology.