Electrifying society

Information aimed at solving the sustainability crisis

The School of Chemical Engineering solves linkages between electrification and the sustainability crisis in three specific ways: by developing substitute materials and battery performance, battery recycling technology, and ways of producing energy.

1. Substitute materials: The availability of materials must be considered in electrification
The performance capacity of electric car batteries (for example cars’ acceleration and range) has improved, and the prices of batteries have gone down. However, batteries have become voracious consumers of raw materials.

This is what is being investigated at Aalto:
Laptop computers, mobile telephones, and other goods “compete” with electric cars over many of the same minerals. Battery technologies for the future, such as sodium batteries suitable for less demanding uses, are being studied at Aalto University. This would free up raw materials for more demanding electricity storage elsewhere.

Correspondingly, research is under way at the university on the manufacture of batteries with higher energy density and which last longer. They would save raw materials in manufacture for reasons including their smaller size.

Elements have their own optimum features and uses. Research at Aalto University produces new information on substitute materials and combinations of them, which can produce the same (or nearly the same) features. For example, iron phosphate batteries would work well in electric cars, instead of today's lithium batteries, if slight compromises are made in the acceleration and range of the vehicle.

2. Recycling battery materials: Circular economy reduces need for virgin raw materials

There is much room for development in recycling battery materials in a manner that saves costs, preserves the environment, and saves energy. Just a few years ago many battery materials, such as lithium, manganese, and graphite, were not recycled at all.

There is also a good geopolitical reason for recycling. For example, very little lithium or rare earth metals are refined in the European Union area. Meanwhile, their importance for society is on the rise. That is why recovery of critical raw materials from electronics that have reached the end of their life cycle, from magnets and from batteries, is very much worthwhile.

‘The real problem is not that metal could not be recovered from the material being recycled. The problem is in getting the metals collected. Nearly 60 million tonnes of electronic waste are amassed each year around the world and the recycling rate is about 20 percent. This would be rich and good material for the manufacture of metals if it could only be recovered.’

– Ari Jokilaakso, Professor of metallurgy at Aalto University

This is what is being researched at Aalto

Aalto University has people with versatile skills and knowledge in the recycling of battery materials. Research into the re-use of battery parts has yielded promising results.

Recycling reduces both the need for virgin raw materials and stress placed on the environment compared with new mineral extraction. However, the need for minerals required by electrification is so great that the recycling of the materials will not replace mining, or eliminate the need for setting up new mines.

Picture of Associate Professor Ari Jokilaakso by Kukka-Maria Rosenlund

The real problem is in getting the metals collected.

Ari Jokilaakso

3. Energy production methods: diverse palette levels demand for metals

It is obvious that neither the production of renewable energy nor the electrification of society can be built on just one or two technologies. Instead, multiple solutions are needed, for reasons including the availability of minerals. A diverse palette of ways to generate and store electricity helps eliminate bottlenecks linked with mineral reserves.

For example, solar, wind, bio, hydro, nuclear, and geothermal energy require different kinds of raw materials. Accordingly, electricity fuels such as methanol produced from water and carbon dioxide using electrolysis powered by renewable energy, as well as other Power2X technologies, save minerals required for different types of storage batteries.

In addition to a versatile production and storage palette, well-developed Western societies must accept the need to conserve energy.

Finally: In an increasingly electrified society we need to set priorities on what minerals and electricity are used for

Electrification has become a patent solution to nearly all climate problems. For example, it has been proposed that agricultural emissions could be reduced by using cultured meat. However, this requires great amounts of energy.

However, now, at the latest, is high time to think about what is worth electrifying and what problems, needs, and desires should be tackled differently. As we shift to a carbon neutral society, we need to prioritise the various needs for the use of metals and electricity. Achieving this requires constructive and fact-based societal debate.

For example, rare earth metals, such as lanthanum, neodymium, and terbium are used in the manufacture of electric scooters. The same materials would also be needed in life-saving hospital equipment, and in the magnets of wind power generators.

Production and use of entertainment electronics also consume massive amounts of minerals and energy. A typical smartphone contains both rare earth metals and, for example, gold, platinum, palladium, and the batteries contain cobalt and lithium. Typically. a telephone has a useful life of a few years and fully functioning telephones are also exchanged when new models are introduced.

Photo of Associate Professor Tanja Kallio, photo by Jaakko Kahilaniemi

We must be able to ensure that society functions properly and everyday life runs smoothly. Recreational use of batteries is not a priority

Tanja Kallio
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