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Wired article: The Surprising Climate Cost of the Humblest Battery Material



    Jordan Lindsay26th Jul 2022 14:35

    Minviro CEO Robert Pell contributed to an article in WIRED on the climate change impact of graphite.

    In the world of battery technology, most of the attention is given to the cathode. But Robert Pell, CEO of Minviro, highlights the importance of its often-overlooked counterpart, the anode - specifically graphite.

    Historically, the anode in batteries was made of lithium metal. However, due to its instability, carbon was adopted. Over time, scientists refined this carbon into graphite, the very material we scribble with when using a No. 2 pencil. It is graphite that dictates how much energy a battery can store and its charging speed.

    While electric vehicles (EVs) are celebrated for their green credentials, Pell points out a glaring oversight. The environmental cost of producing graphite, a crucial battery component, has been vastly underestimated. Current estimates exclude several energy-intensive processes that make graphite ready for battery use. With EVs being more environment-friendly than gasoline-powered vehicles, the battery's raw materials present a challenge in decarbonizing the overall process.

    Two recent studies, including one spearheaded by Pell, reveal the startling carbon footprint of graphite. An astonishing 90% of graphite for anodes is sourced from China, mainly from Inner Mongolia, where coal-fired power plants dominate. The process of converting graphite into anodes involves intense heating, with synthetic graphite demanding even more extreme temperatures. These practices significantly contribute to carbon emissions.

    Though both studies derived different numbers regarding graphite's climate impact, they agree that common figures are considerable underestimates. Shockingly, Minviro estimates that emissions for graphite can be up to 10 times higher than what's commonly believed.

    To counter this, Pell suggests investing in graphite recycling, which is often less carbon-intensive. European officials are also considering regulations to reduce battery production emissions. An alternative is to produce graphite where the energy supply is cleaner. For instance, Vianode, a Norwegian company, plans to produce synthetic graphite using electricity from hydropower.

    Ultimately, while Chinese firms dominate the graphite industry, with a push towards greener practices, the tide can turn. As Pell aptly remarks, “The ability to enact change is stronger [in China] than anywhere else.”

    You can read the full article here

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