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Towards greener, lower-priced and more powerful Li-ion batteries

The future is electric, no doubt. And Li-ion batteries are at the very heart of this megatrend. Quite simply put: they offer us a better life, from e-mobility solutions to portable electronics. But as crucial as they may be, Li-ion batteries are always on trial. Are they sustainably sourced? Can we add more recycled metal? And are we able to enhance their performance? These are just some of the challenges Umicore gladly accepts as a pioneer in rechargeable battery materials.


Off to a flying start

Although it’s hard to imagine life without Li-ion batteries, they have only been around since the 90s. “In that period, we had to pull out all the stops to keep up with the fast-changing market needs”, says Tom Van Bellinghen, Vice-President OEMs Marketing & Sales at Umicore Rechargeable Battery Materials. 

“First, we needed to optimise every aspect of the product, from its safety to its cycle life. Then, we started setting up mass production and incorporating new chemistries for different applications and improved performance. Soon after, we responded to an additional challenge: a growing demand for batteries  urged us to increase the purity of our cathode material. As a result, production plants turned into high-tech facilities with stringent hygienic measures. It has been an exciting ride and it has only just begun.”

“The electrification of society is still in its infancy.”

Sustainability first

Environmental awareness has probably had the biggest impact on the industry. The world wants Li-ion batteries with the smallest-possible footprint – and rightfully so! Anticipating this, long before sustainability was a global concern, we set up a value chain featuring responsibly sourced raw materials.

Over 15 years ago, Umicore established a sustainable procurement framework for cobalt that addresses child labour, environmental issues, human rights, miners’ health and safety, and business ethics. In short, every kilogram of cobalt needs to comply with numerous checks. We are the first company in the world to establish such a supply chain framework for cobalt, and the first to obtain external validation in accordance with the OECD Due Diligence Guidelines. Now, we encourage others to follow.

“Ethically and sustainably sourced materials are a non-negotiable for Umicore.”

New requirements on the rise

The electrification of society is rapidly gaining pace. To illustrate, between now and 2030 it is expected that the automotive industry will produce over 340 million electric vehicles (EVs) of all types, including hybrids – from two-wheelers and passenger cars to trucks and buses. This means a whole new set of material requirements is emerging.

"Future cathodes must have a significantly lower CO2 footprint, work at higher voltages and use lower-priced, less-volatile raw materials. Moreover, the EU demands that all industrial and EV batteries contain minimum levels of recycled content by 2030: 12% cobalt, 4% lithium and 4% nickel. To top it off, cathode producers will need to deliver a multiple of today’s volumes. But just like we succeeded in mastering the challenges of the past, we have a roadmap in place that will enable us to stay at the top of our field over the next few decades", concludes Tom Van Bellinghen.