With targets to reduce carbon emissions requiring countries to promote sustainable energy sources, batteries have a leading role to play in this energy transition. While lithium-ion batteries are found in all kinds of modern devices, producing them creates a high demand for the minerals that are required to make them along with human rights concerns for the workers that extract them.
As the Netherlands grapples with its role in the global energy transition, can some of the answers be found here in the North?
“I think we need a combination of solutions,” Professor Moniek Tromp, who is the Director of the Zernike Institute for Advanced Materials, told The Northern Times. She said that while batteries do have a role to play to deal with the transition from carbon-based fuels to more sustainable energy sources there’s also been a focus on hydrogen especially in the North of the Netherlands.
Nonetheless, batteries remain ubiquitous. An increasing use of them is in stationary storage solutions to alleviate the energy grid, solar fields, and wind parks. Batteries also remain popular for mobility uses as in cars and for small consumer electronic devices such as phones and tablets.
Tromp said that battery technology is currently heavily based on lithium-ion technology which she says has its limitations since the process to make the battery stable enough for use means its capacity is not as high as one would like it to be.
“So on the one hand, we want to further develop the lithium-ion batteries to get to higher capacities. But there is of course the question of if we can actually make enough lithium-ion batteries. And if there’s enough material to make lithium-ion batteries sustainably. Right now there’s an issue in terms of the availability of the material. And secondly, about the counter electrodes which often still have some cobalt in them. It comes from child labour in mines in Congo, so that’s not something we want,” explained Tromp.
Therefore the issue is two-fold: improving batteries but also making them more sustainable. While recycling batteries could be a solution, there’s also the option of going towards completely different types of batteries that use materials that can be sourced closer to home. Tromp says this could be a way for the Netherlands to be less dependent on specific countries for its materials for batteries.
An iron-air dream
“We see this in for example urban mining where we try to recycle as much material as we can. Or we can take something that’s abundant in nature and create different batteries from that. If you then create new batteries with new chemistry, you also think about recycling from the start. So recycling by design,” said Tromp.
She believes academics can have an important role in this area of discovering new technologies. Her personal dream is to create an iron-air battery.
“We have iron in abundance, and if we can combine that with air, that would be a very sustainable battery. But we’d have to make that work and then make it work safely. We’re not quite there yet,” she said.
A number of companies, such as OceanGrazer here in the North, use batteries to store excess energy generated from sustainable sources to be used during periods when there is less wind for example. However, is using batteries (some with older technologies) friendlier for the environment at the end of the day or are we better off with the status quo?
“There are issues with all kinds of sustainable alternatives. And you have to really think about where you use what and why. So what is the best storage solution or energy solution and what will you use it for? You’re probably not going to put a large hydrogen tank in your garden. And it doesn’t make sense to put portacabins full of batteries near a chemical plant either. So you have to really use to fuel the energy source best suited for the application,” Tromp replied.
Can the Netherlands play a role in this sector?
According to Tromp the country is already late to the game. However, she believes the Netherlands can play an important role and contribute many of its strengths. She described the country as one which has a long history of material science, an area she believes the Netherlands can make a difference in.
“We don’t have cell manufacturers and we don’t have an automotive industry. So that’s why I think a lot of people thought well, there’s no role for the Netherlands. But if we can come up with new chemistry which can be implemented elsewhere, that also provides a contribution,” Tromp said.
The University of the North
Asked about the role the North of the Netherlands specifically can play in the battery technology space, Tromp said that there’s a lot happening here. She said that the local knowledge institutions collaborated to create the so-called University of the North. Together they’re training and educating people to be able to serve the different roles required for future battery technologies. She also said that this part of the Netherlands could also leverage its proximity to Germany to distribute energy abroad.
“So I think the ecosystem here is very good. There are a lot of small companies which we can link to and there is a seaport where there’s a lot of activity in different types of industries already. Battery-related research fits really well in that landscape where there’s a harbour that easily allows for the transportation of all kinds of things. And simply there is also still space to build something. So if you would want to build new companies or factories, there is still space in the North of the Netherlands,” Tromp explained.
SuWoTec: Sustainable World Technology
One such company in this northern ecosystem is SuWoTec which was started in 2016 by social entrepreneurs with backgrounds in the oil and gas services, automotive, energy, finance, research, academia and product development fields.
“Thanks to our good international knowledge network, we have figured out where we can make the greatest impact. For us that has become the Energy and Waste market,” a spokesperson for SuWoTec told The Northern Times.
The company is on a mission to secure a sustainable future for generations to come by developing sustainable circular technologies that are inspired by the way nature works.
“Identifying nature’s fundamentally efficient and resilient processes, we develop game-changer technologies that are circular by design and feasible over time. Our work must have a positive effect on people and the planet, right where it matters most,” the spokesperson said.
“If you want to make the right big steps in the energy transition, you need new materials and/or new systems,” they added.
SuWoTec created its Ceramic Electrodes 6 years ago which are wear-resistant and can be used in a large number of energy applications. It also created the Bio Based Battery with these unique electrodes. This is a battery consisting of sand, salt, and leaves or seaweed which seems to tie in with Prof. Tromp’s call for using commonly found materials closer to home.
“This is the 5th year of very successful testing with this battery. We have also made a solid version of this battery,” said the spokesperson.
Furthermore, the company is also collaborating with 72 students working in different teams from 3 different courses at the Hanzehogeschool Groningen. Preparations for similar collaborations with the University of Groningen (RUG) are underway.
A social battery in the Top Dutch region
SuWoTec also aims to give back to the community and one way it’s currently doing so is through The Sustainable Battery Systems B.V. – a social company with an organic growth model.
“It is proudly developed, designed and built in the Top Dutch region. Through cooperations with social employment agencies, housing corporations and schools, training and employment are provided for target groups that are distant from the labour market and are also hindered by the qualification structure of MBO schools,” the spokesperson said.
This home and industrial battery’s purpose is to give residents the opportunity for cheaper stable energy, to aid simple manufacturing industries, to allow for affordable housing, and to reduce wasted energy supply.
“The build-it-yourself model is for a widely accessible target group with unprecedented low pricing €300 per kWh,” the spokesperson said.