Two years ago, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry to the three scientists who led the development of lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries that have laid the foundation for a fossil-fuel-free economy. But how can batteries – mere storage units for energy – be a standard‑bearer of the energy revolution? A new report in UN DESA Frontier Technology Issues (FTI) series explains.

Transport and the generation of energy are responsible for the lion’s share of human greenhouse gas emissions, which are causing the climate crisis. Li-ion batteries are one of the keys to unlocking the green potential of both these sectors.

In the energy sector, batteries have made the rise of the renewals possible by overcoming the largest deficiency of solar and wind power – their variability. Put very simply, the sun doesn’t always shine, and the wind doesn’t always blow, but batteries can store up surplus power when generation is abundant for use in times of deficit. Batteries also reduce how much generating capacity needs to be installed, helping to make renewable energy more competitive.

In transport, thanks to their high power-to-weight ratio, Li-ion batteries can help replace the conventional fossil-fuel-guzzling automobiles with electric vehicles. In the United States, the world’s second largest car market, global manufacturers have announced plans to introduce nearly 100 purely electric vehicle models within the next three years. Buses and trucks are also being electrified as battery technology improves.

The progress made in either of these two sectors leads to further gains in the other, creating a virtuous cycle of lower cost, greater production, and greater demand. In 2010, the demand for Li-ion batteries was merely 19 gigawatt hours (GWh). This figure has since grown to 285 GWh in 2019 and it is expected to reach 2,000 GWh in 9 years’ time—that’s about 8 per cent of the entire world energy supply.

One of the greatest limitations to this battery boom is the fact that key materials for producing Li-ion batteries, such as lithium and cobalt, are extracted only in a few countries. In some instances, their supplies could hardly catch up with rapidly increasing demand. Producing countries have often restricted exports of the materials for political gains. There have also been concerns about social and environmental impacts of cobalt and lithium mining.

However, we can introduce policies that could accelerate the development and uptake of lithium-ion batteries even further without compromising on environmental and social impacts. The new UN DESA Frontier Technologies Issues draws attention to the kind of policies that could enable continued research and development, stable material sourcing, efficient production, and closed-loop recycling systems to maximize the potential of lithium-ion battery to power our energy transformation.

Read the full Frontier Technology Issues: Lithium-ion batteries: a pillar for a fossil fuel-free economy?