Emissions of greenhouse gases by automobile internal combustion engines and thermal electric power plants could be largely eliminated by moving over to wind and solar power sources, with storage provided by lithium-ion and sodium-ion batteries. This move is partly underway.
In 2019, sales of electric cars, nearly all of them powered by lithium-ion batteries, were 2.1 million vehicles. If you refer to https://www.iea.org/reports/global-ev-outlook-2020 you will see that over the last decade the electric car business has picked up momentum.
Underlining the importance of lithium-ion batteries was the award of the 2019 Nobel Prize in chemistry to researchers in this field: John B. Goodenough, M. Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino. Their most inspiring Nobel lectures are available on the following web sites:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xlm-C-qr63Y Goodenough lecture
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ro-LjHthTy8 Whittingham lecture
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q6pOF09Cidw Akira Yoshino’s lecture
These authors give excellent accounts of the 40 years of research that led to the invention and development of the amazingly sophisticated lithium-ion battery. Some electric cars now have a range of over 400 kilometers. At present, however, there are approximately one billion gasoline-based cars in the world. An electric car needs about 10 kg of lithium; thus, replacing all gasoline cars by electric ones will require on the order of 10 million tons of lithium. Adding trucks, buses and tramways could double this amount. Lithium-ion batteries also require rare metals like nickel, manganese and cobalt, and common metals like aluminum, iron and copper.
Chile has the largest reserves of lithium, estimated at about 9 million tons. The total world reserves now known are about 18 million tons. There are other considerable uses of high-capacity batteries. For example, electric utilities are acquiring more and more intermittent wind and solar power sources, and they need to back them up with large-scale batteries. The main problem with lithium-ion batteries is that the lithium supply might run out in the next ten to twenty years.
Researchers, aware of this problem, have developed sodium-ion batteries. Sodium from salt mines and from sea water will never be exhausted. A few companies are now marketing sodium-ion batteries. Compared to lithium-ion batteries the sodium-ion ones present the following disadvantages: -1, their electric energy density per kilogram is about half the value for lithium-ion ones; this makes them too heavy for cars, and -2, the number of times they can be cycled without too much loss of performance is less than one thousand. With lithium-ion, in contrast, researchers are aiming at 3000 cycles or more with little loss of performance.
In conclusion, more good news is to be expected in preserving planetary climate by the use of green power and batteries. Moreover, it would be prudent for a country like Canada to explore further its own sources of lithium and to support the research and development of sodium-ion batteries.
Michel A. Duguay, physicist, retired from Laval University