Innovation in repurposing, recycling and reinventing batteries will be a rich vein of IP, say Callum McGuinn and Joseph Newcombe.
Zero-carbon transport and energy production are set to grow under the shadow of global warming and improved battery technology will be a key enabling technology. Lithium ion (Li-ion) batteries are the most likely to act as the “fuel” source of electric vehicles (EVs), and to provide the bulk of the storage capacity needed. Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimates the battery industry will expand 50- fold in value by 2050 to nearly $900bn.
However, limited supplies of rare and expensive elements like cobalt, manganese and nickel, key constituents of Li-ion batteries, are a cause for concern. Additionally, only a handful of countries generate almost all global lithium. Lithium reserves are probably insufficient to replace all cars with EVs, let alone provide batteries for other technology too.
There are several areas where innovation is helping improve the future sustainability of batteries, with consequent IP implications. These can be categorised by three ‘Rs’: repurposing, recycling and reinventing.
Extending a battery’s life cycle is one way to improve sustainability. A “second life” market in which batteries that have reached the end of their useful life in one application are repurposed could be particularly significant for EVs. EV batteries must operate effectively under challenging conditions, such as enduring operating temperature extremes, rarely undergoing full charge cycles and yet needing to maintain a long range per charge.
The good news is once an EV battery can no longer meet its specific operation requirements, it could still have other uses. According to a recent report from Energsoft, many EV batteries are retired with up to 80% of their maximum storage capability remaining. Therefore, they can still be implemented effectively in static utility storage facilities (that improve power grid stability by mitigating the ebb and flow of renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power), which are less demanding on cells. Second life batteries should be cheaper.
However, since there is no standardisation for EV batteries, reconditioning and incorporating them into second life solutions presents a challenge. If pressure mounts for a second life market, we may find that original equipment manufacturers are incentivised to reach agreements for standard platform technologies. Such agreements would involve IP licensing and could result in more certainty to exploit battery repurposing.
Another way to improve sustainability is to ensure that a greater proportion of the raw materials in end-of-life batteries is reused. Recycling lead-acid and nickel-cadmium batteries is typically very effective, less so Liion batteries. As a sustainability gap emerges, a shift towards a circular economy is taking place where Li-ion materials are fed back into production.
Currently, at most 50% of Li-ion batteries reaching the end of their life are recycled. Of this, recovery of essential materials is relatively low; so this figure does not give the full picture of what can actually be re-used. However, processes are being developed that are capable of recovering up to 80% of the raw materials.
Improving processes for material retrieval should be a hot topic of research in the coming years. Increasing efficiency and reducing costs will be essential for widespread uptake of recycling and having a high-grade end product that can go back into battery manufacture would be a bonus. As more entrants to the market arrive, holding patents which allow the exclusion of others from using proprietary methods will be an important aspect of commercial strategy.
A third way to get around sustainability problems is to develop new types of battery. For EVs to have a sufficiently long range, batteries must be light, so batteries of high energy density (the energy deliverable per unit weight of the battery) will be crucial. Enter the lithium-sulfur (Li-S) battery. Li-S batteries are cheap, with far better capacity and energy output compared to Li-ion, but with a lower environmental impact. But before we see Li-S technology replace fossil fuels or other battery technologies, there are some important problems to solve, such as reactions which cause battery ageing and loss of capacity leading to battery failure.
Some exciting breakthroughs have already been made, for instance in the development of carbon-sulfur conductive matrix materials to address these problems. There are still hurdles, but at current rates of progress the full commercialisation of Li-S batteries seems possible within 10 years.
Other promising research into new battery types includes the development of rechargeable cells that require no lithium or rare metals, but can achieve energy outputs twice that of the highest capacity lithium cells. The use of innovative materials like alloys and organic polymers could also help reduce risk of battery short-circuits, which cause fires and explosions. With sustainability and innovation key, there are significant opportunities for innovative companies with a strong IP position to be rewarded handsomely.
This blog was co-authored by Joseph Newcombe.
Joseph works in the chemistry and materials field assisting in the drafting and prosecution of UK and European patents. He also has experience in opposition and appeal proceedings before the EPO and the management of national/regional phase entry of international patent applications.
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