Where to find growth to accompany the battery boom?
In addition to electric cars and batteries, Europe must also strive for leadership in other markets for low-carbon technologies, writes our guest blogger Olli Salmi.
27. May 2020
Managing Director, EIT RawMaterials Baltic Sea Innovation Hub CLC
Having a new Tesla electric car in your own yard may not be the best possible action for the climate, said Mika Anttonen from ST1 in his excellent keynote speech on the future of energy and raw materials at the annual meeting of the Finnish Association of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers a year ago.
The idea stuck in my mind for two reasons. Firstly, it is true that increasing consumption is hardly a solution to environmental problems. According to the Finnish Environment Institute, household consumption causes more than 60% of Finland’s greenhouse gas emissions, and low-carbon technologies have not helped to reduce the emissions from consumption since the early 2000s.
The second reason is that the fight against climate change requires a fundamental change in energy supply, seemingly turning the old laws of environmental protection upside down. Renewable energy is an important part of the solution and needs to be accompanied by energy storage. Both require access to raw materials from mines and recycling facilities, as well as the ability to produce advanced materials.
The entire raw material value chain, including mining and exploration, now appears to be an important part of tackling climate change. Back in the 1990s, this course of development would have been very difficult to conceive.
Sustainable materials at the heart of technology
While electric cars and batteries are seen as a key technology path to a low-carbon future, other interesting futures paths are also at hand for European research and industry. Guidelines for this can be found, for example, in the roadmap published at the end of last year by the Energy Materials Industrial Research Initiative, EMIRI.
The premise is that the production of advanced materials is significant to the European economy: with its multiplier effects, the sector employs around 10 million people in Europe and contributes more than EUR 650 billion to Europe’s GDP. The total number of companies is about 40,000.
The fight against climate change and the advanced materials sector are closely linked, and at the top of the list are three key EU problems1 that are certainly familiar to the Finnish industry as well:
1. End users
End users of low-carbon energy solutions are increasingly found outside the EU: Asian countries are developing their own electricity production capacity at a rapid pace.
The manufacturing of equipment, components and high value-added materials for low-carbon energy solutions has moved closer to end users, and thus outside the EU.
Innovations in material technology arise in the vicinity of low-carbon energy production and energy efficiency solutions. Excellent basic research is being done in Europe, but research elsewhere in the world is focused on innovation, production and commercialisation.
According to EMIRI, these problems should be addressed in five different areas:
Wind and solar electricity solutions: from the materials perspective, durable coatings and rare earth elements required for permanent magnets and their replacement, as well as the high-efficiency silicone crystals, new heat transfer fluids and absorption materials in solar cells, take precedence.
Energy storage in batteries to ensure both electric mobility and short-term storage of electricity. The materials perspective is very broad from the availability of raw materials to cathode materials and the materials needed in new solid-state batteries.
Development of hydrogen technologies for electric mobility, with raw material needs focusing especially on catalytic materials. There are new opportunities for industry in components such as electrodes, membranes and electrolytes, as well as in the development of testing and quality assurance.
Development of materials for chemical energy storage by means of hydrogen (power-to-X) and carbon capture and use.
Energy efficiency through the improvement of lightweight vehicle structures and materials in the built environment, in particular the compatibility of hybrid materials and the safe use of materials.
EIT RawMaterials has a clear role to play in commercialising innovations in the raw materials and advanced materials sector and in networking the best actors in Europe – funding is available for cooperation projects between universities, research institutes and companies.
Still room for improvement in the traceability of raw materials
The pandemic caused by the coronavirus has highlighted the problems of long value chains. The European low-carbon industry is completely dependent on raw materials that are mainly produced outside the EU. We now have a good opportunity to quickly address this dependency through industrial renewal and innovation activities. The value chains of material production will continue to develop rapidly even after the coronavirus, and Finland and the rest of Europe must strive to be at the forefront of this development for the sake of both new business opportunities and the environment.
At present, for example, there is no reliable way to determine the social and environmental impact of the production of the metals used in batteries over their life cycle. Numerous projects for the certification of sustainable raw materials are underway, for example, by BMW, Volvo, Volkswagen and Ford, but the results and wider introduction of the certificates are still to materialize.
What about that Tesla then, is it a good action for the climate? Zero emissions are difficult to achieve but compared to a car with an internal combustion engine, the answer is probably yes, albeit depending on where and how you use the electric car. Emissions from making a car are best offset in favour of the electric car when the energy used to charge the batteries is produced in a low-carbon manner. At the moment, of the European countries, driving an electric car seems to be the best climate action in Sweden.
1 Ierides M et.al, 2019: Advanced Materials for Clean and Sustainable Energy and Mobility. EMIRI Technology Roadmap, Sept. 2019.