Inflation Reduction Act: Sourcing materials and making batteries are challenging
With the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) — the most significant climate change policy passed in our country to date — engineers, like myself, are at the center of developing and deploying the clean energy technology in record time. Importantly, these technologies include the batteries for electric vehicles (EVs), a centerpiece of the legislation and long-time foundation of strategies to reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions. The IRA lays out some tough — and dramatic — engineering challenges for EV batteries.
It is far easier to buy a battery made abroad. We can’t change this reality without engineers as the heroes in what will be a dramatic build out of battery manufacturing in the United States.
Potentially even more challenging than building the facilities that assemble battery parts is acquiring all the materials they contain. Metals — including lithium, copper, manganese, nickel and cobalt — are a key part of what makes a battery work.
However, the U.S. is not a dominant producer of any of these metals. And, typically, countries that produce metals don’t manufacture battery components or batteries at all. A common example is Chile, which produces 25 percent of the world’s lithium, but no appreciable number of batteries. About 70 percent of our cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and 15 to 20 percent of that is mined by hand. This cobalt is generally exported to China, where it is used in battery production.
Recognizing the supply chain risks that such an international supply chain entails, the IRA sets targets for the percentage of the value of critical materials in a battery that come in total from domestic mines recycling, or from countries with which the U.S. has a free-trade agreement. This target hits 80 percent in four years. Given that most batteries are assembled outside the U.S., the amount of U.S.-mined metals incorporated in batteries today is incredibly small. To increase this percentage so dramatically in the next four years, advances in recycling existing lithium-ion batteries is key.
Subject to intense research and development, this technology is very young and not operated yet on a large scale in the U.S. Previous research has estimated that accomplishing a target of about 8 percent lithium and 12 percent each of nickel and cobalt by 2030 would be possible. By mass, this is only about one-third of the critical materials in a battery that would be achieved in eight (not four) years. Again, engineers must come to the rescue to design and scale these processes.