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Research for greener batteries

As transitioning to a more sustainable energy system is imperative, Nature Sustainability and Tongji University launch an Expert Panel to shed light on the integrative research efforts needed to develop the next generation of batteries.

Back in 2018, Nature Sustainability launched with a common vision — going beyond featuring knowledge to feature insight that will catalyse understanding and wise action — and a mission, to facilitate cross-disciplinary dialogue and narrow the gap between research and decision making. Part of our strategy to fulfil both our vision and mission has been to bring together diverse communities through the Expert Panel initiative - a regular journal effort. Under the global sustainability umbrella, the Panels have so far covered diverse themes such as the urban science and policy interface, design behaviour, and innovations for the food value chain. Each Panel, with Nature Sustainability oversight, was supported by a committed research institute and led by diverse global leaders, acting as Panel co-chairs. Experts from around the world got together under such leadership to move relevant debates forward. Overall these Expert Panels are engagement and dialogue efforts across research and practice fields that identify key areas for future research and practice and pathways to develop that. Ultimately, these Panels are meant to help find solutions to sustainability challenges by spearheading new collaborations under the auspices of Nature Sustainability.

Credit: REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo

This year, renewing our commitment, we launch a Panel on the ‘Sustainability of lithium-ion batteries’, reaching out to experts from materials science, engineering, public policy, life-cycle technology assessment as well as industry. With the support of Tongji University in China, and under the lead of four co-chairs from Tongji University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology and Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Limited, a total 20 leading scholars and practitioners from around the world got together on 26 April 2021 to set the agenda for the Panel. A full report including knowledge synthesis and recommendations from the Panel will be released in December 2021.

Why a focus on the sustainability of batteries? Whether for large storage of renewable energy generation or to power electric vehicles, batteries play centre stage in a continuously evolving energy system that on the one hand has to keep up with growing demand and expanding energy access, while on the other it faces increasing environmental challenges. Climate change mitigation has never been higher on the agenda of multilateral negotiations and it is driving the decarbonization of the energy system worldwide. Such a massive transformation has to accelerate and will to a large extent rely on improved energy storage capacity; but that is not all. A sustainable energy system is a fair, reliable, modern, affordable and environmentally friendly one as also reflected by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 7. Such a system relies on socially acceptable practices, government support and has to minimize the demands on non-renewable natural resources, toxic discharges to the environment and their associated health risks. A great deal of design innovation as well as cross-disciplinary knowledge are needed to deliver on that. Against this backdrop, it is unquestionable that future batteries development — including design and disposal — will have to go hand-in-hand with sustainability considerations and as a result will need input from a variety of communities. This Expert Panel brings together experts on batteries technology, the environmental impacts of batteries, their market potential as per industry’s views and policy implications.

During the April meeting, panellists discussed the latest technological progress, the current state of life-cycle technology assessments, industry’s needs and the sustainability challenges and opportunities as related to materials supply chain, battery recycling, alongside economic and behavioural dimensions. Listening to the debates, it was clear that the gap between scholarly research and industry exists with different philosophies not always aligned. A clear need also emerged for stronger integration of environmental assessments in technology research.

Nature Sustainability is now waiting for the report hoping that many will engage and find inspiration in the work and passion of this select group of experts.

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Research for greener batteries. Nat Sustain 4, 373 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-021-00727-1

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