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How Renewable Forests Could Solve A Major Electric Vehicle Problem

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Automakers and energy companies are racing to find innovative options to boost electric vehicle (EV) battery technology as governments around the world attempt to curb the sale of diesel and petrol cars, increasing EV uptake. The latest experiment in this space is the use of wooden components in lithium-ion batteries, as companies invest in making their EVs greener.

Finish-Swedish firm Stora Enso and Volkswagen-backed Northvolt have partnered in the development of a sustainable battery that uses an anode manufactured from lignin-based hard carbon, which is sourced from renewable wood from Nordic forests. Through the Joint Development Agreement, the two companies hope to establish the first industrialized battery using the anode, made up wholly of European raw materials, reducing the battery’s carbon footprint.

Johanna Hagelberg, Executive Vice President for Biomaterials at Stora Enso, stated of the project, “The joint battery development with Northvolt marks a step on our journey to serve the fast-growing battery market with renewable anode materials made from trees. Our lignin-based hard carbon, Lignode® by Stora Enso, will secure the strategic European supply of anode raw material, serving the sustainable battery needs for applications from mobility to stationary energy storage.”

Each firm has specialist experience in battery production, which allows them to contribute effectively to the development. Stora Enso will deliver the lignin-based anode material Lignode, produced from wood from sustainable forests. Lignin, a renewable carbon source, is a plant-derived polymer that comes from the cell walls of dry-land plants, with trees made up of between 20 and 30 percent of the material. Enso already has a pilot plant it uses for its bio-based carbon materials in Finland, producing around 50,000 tonnes of lignin per year. It is now studying the potential for the industrial production of Lignode.

Meanwhile, Northvolt will develop the cell design and production process and will scale up the technology for commercial production. Northvolt, established in 2016, is a European supplier of battery cells and systems. It has so far attracted $55 billion in funding from companies such as including BMW, Fluence, Scania, Volkswagen, Volvo Cars, and Polestar to develop a low-carbon lithium-ion battery for use in EVs. The firm is also developing its battery recycling capabilities with the aim of sourcing 50 percent of the raw materials for new batteries from existing batteries by the end of the decade.

Emma Nehrenheim, Chief Environmental Officer at Northvolt, explains, “With this partnership, we are exploring a new source of sustainable raw material and expanding the European battery value chain, while also developing a less expensive battery chemistry. It is an exciting demonstration of how our pursuit of a sustainable battery industry goes hand-in-hand with creating a positive impact both on society and cost.”

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Automakers and energy firms are finding it increasingly difficult to source battery components partly due to delays in the global supply chain following the Covid-19 pandemic, but mainly owing to the lack of mining projects in operation, required to provide the metals and minerals needed to produce batteries. The International Energy Agency explained in May that there is a “shift from a fuel-intensive to a material-intensive energy system”, about the need for more widespread mining operations to meet the global demand for materials needed for renewable energy projects.

With several governments aiming to phase out the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles starting at the end of the decade, automakers are competing to develop the best and most cost-effective EV models as uptake in Europe, North America, and Asia rapidly increases. In June, the E.U. made the decision to ban the sale of internal combustion engine (ICE) cars and SUVs by 2035, making it the first whole region to do so.

But the successful banning of ICE cars will require a huge investment in battery research, development, and production, as well as the global scaling up of mining operations. The decision to prohibit petrol and diesel vehicles comes as part of the aim of many governments worldwide to reduce their carbon emissions to achieve net zero by 2050, in line with Paris Agreement targets. However, shifting reliance from one natural resource to another may put other materials under threat. However, projects such as the wooden anode could provide an alternative, more sustainable solution to battery development. If new renewable components can be developed for battery production, it would reduce the reliance on mineral mining which could cause widespread environmental degradation.

As automakers and energy firms race to develop the most innovative and efficient lithium-ion batteries, for use in EVs and several other products, companies are now looking for alternative materials to produce these batteries. If companies are successful in finding an alternative to intensive mining for natural resources in their battery development, it could provide them with the competitive edge needed to make their products stand out for being more sustainable.

By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com

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