Material demands for the energy transition

It’s not news that we are currently in the midst of an energy transition — and leading the change are new energy storage, hydrogen, and material technologies. Many of these technologies and their components need rare-earth metals and engineered materials for developmental success. 

As a result, demand for these critical materials is increasing. Demand is expected to outweigh supply without intervention if these material requirements continue to grow steadily. A report from Mckinsey and Co shows that lithium supply needs to grow by a factor of seven times to meet the demands between now and 2030. 

The report goes on to demonstrate how market balance could be achieved in one of three ways:

  1. Supply will respond to prices
  2. Materials substitution
  3. Technology substitution

But for whatever method of balance, there are various challenges with current extraction and material development strategies, as existing value chains are laden with ethical concerns, regional overdependence, and environmental conflict.

Sourcing and development strategy

To develop resilient, sustainable, and ethical value chains, energy technology companies are partnering strategically with recyclers, extractors, and developers. Or, they have vertically integrated to secure these materials for themselves.

A key target for virgin producers is the development of improved extraction technology that is also more environmentally conscious. 

Recyclers will have similar initiatives while they also work to streamline and optimize production processes. As more products reach end-of-life in the coming years, the supply of ‘scrap’ materials for recycling will grow:

  • 1250 GWh of viable spent battery materials. The Global Battery Alliance predicts that the market for second use batteries could grow to $4 billion by 2030.
  • 78 million tons of viable raw materials and components from decommissioned solar panels per year. The value of the recovered material could exceed 15 billion dollars by 2050.
  • 43 million tons per year of wind turbine waste material by 2050.

Recycling offers an opportunity to redirect the waste from landfills and to supply an increasingly resource-starved industry with valuable materials.

Companies will aim to develop secure and sustainable operations and leverage the variable market opportunities a circular and sustainability-motivated economy presents.

Our Next Energy Circle and Northvolt recycling recently announced strategies and production plans that fall in line with this approach.

But how do they seamlessly bring all of these pieces and processes together for commercially viable deployment?

Process development and analysis

With new business and product development strategies, new challenges for speed and quality assurance are likely to emerge — while those existing will dissipate or persist. 

Material and product developments still experience long lead times between proof of concept and production. Going from PoC to meeting an OEM spec to full-scale manufacturing can take three to six years for an EV battery. 

Throughout this process, they must thoroughly understand material characteristics, performance correlations, moving price targets, and find ways to reduce error rates at the ppb, or sometimes ppt scale.

These efforts for improved understanding and commercial success are leading to a push for more extensive analytical methods. While the strategy of robust testing and analytical throughput does open the door for greater understanding and insight, we often see a few challenges that arise with it:

  • Searching for and generating correlations is cumbersome with diverse and separated analytical sets. This can be especially challenging with excel and generic lab tools.
  • Reproducibility is challenging without access to an accurate set of details that can impact results. Even with more test data, a lack of context to characterization, parameter, and stability information yields insufficient insight.
  • Teams and systems are not unified. Analytical groups are working in separate places and systems from product developers, production, and commercial teams. This leaves room for error and negative performance impacts.

These shortfalls can compound as companies extend or diversify their development chains (material refinement → full product assembly) and generate more large, diverse, and complex data sets.

Seamless and Integrated Process Control

Insights from test outcomes and correlations drive decisions throughout the entire product delivery process. Customer interactions, product corrections, and project management workflows all require visibility to the insights generated. Maintaining visibility across several disparate systems means it takes time and people to bring all the information together.

Alchemy and modern platforms address this by unifying groups and integrating all relevant information in one place. Here are the ways it is done:

  • Integration means having software systems talk to each other. Any compelling correlation can be generated and visualized quickly by automatically calling, capturing, and organizing composition, process, analytical, and commercial data in one place.
  • Different teams need different functions. The most agile platforms combine tools for customer relationship management, lab information management, project management, and production automation — and then link it with analytical data to bring everybody together in one place.

We have seen this strategy support more efficient collaboration and continuous process improvement at every stage of product development and commercialization and align the relationship between quality and speed so that better compliance supports faster development and scalability. 

Alchemy’s platform functionality and domain expertise position us to effectively implement this strategy, as we aim to help catalyze the transition towards the new circular clean energy economy.

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