Nickel in batteries

Nickel is making a vital contribution to the lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries that power much of the electric vehicle revolution.

Nickel (Ni) has long been widely used in batteries, most commonly in nickel cadmium (NiCd) and in the longer-lasting nickel metal hydride (NiMH) rechargeable batteries, which came to the fore in the 1980s. Their adoption in power tools and early digital cameras revealed the potential for portable devices, changing expectations of how we work and live. The mid-1990s saw the first significant use of NiMH batteries in vehicles in the Toyota Prius. Around the same time, the first commercial applications for Li-ion batteries emerged, initially in camcorders and eventually finding their way into smartphones, laptops and the numerous other portable devices we now take for granted.

The major advantage of using nickel in batteries is that it helps deliver higher energy density and greater storage capacity at a lower cost. Further advances in nickel-containing battery technology mean it is set for an increasing role in energy storage systems, helping make the cost of each kWh of battery storage more competitive. It is making energy production from intermittent renewable energy sources such as wind and solar replace fossil fuels more viable.

Nickel in batteries helps deliver higher energy density and greater storage capacity at a lower cost

Batteries for Electric Vehicles

In tandem with this increasing market share, battery technology is also advancing, another reason why the proportion of nickel-containing Li-ion batteries in use is set to grow. Two of the most commonly-used types of batteries, Nickel Cobalt Aluminium (NCA) and Nickel Manganese Cobalt (NMC) use 80% and 33% nickel respectively; newer formulations of NMC are also approaching 80% nickel. Most Li-ion batteries now rely on nickel.

Li-ion batteries were incorporated into the next generation of electric cars, as their superior power density became critical for moving vehicles over long distances. Although electric vehicles (EVs) currently account for a relatively small proportion of global automobile stock, their market share is increasing and is forecast to continue to grow rapidly in the coming years. Some predictions suggest they will make up more than 10% of vehicles by 2025, most of which will be powered by nickel-containing Li-ion batteries. Using nickel in car batteries offers greater energy density and storage at lower cost, delivering a longer range for vehicles, currently one of the restraints to EV uptake.

Nickel in car batteries: delivering a longer range for vehicles

The importance of nickel in rechargeable battery technologies

An electric battery consists of one or more electrochemical cells, which comprise two electrodes - an anode and a cathode - and an electrolyte. When the two electrodes are linked by a pathway that conducts electricity, electrons can flow from one to the other. When a battery is used to supply electric power, the anode provides electrons, which will - when connected by a circuit to an external device - flow and deliver energy.

There are two classifications of batteries. Primary batteries are disposable, for single use; secondary batteries can be recharged and reused. Secondary batteries come in a number of varieties, such as the lead-acid battery found in automobiles, NiCd (Nickel Cadmium), NiMH (Nickel Metal Hydride) and Li-ion (Lithium ion). Nickel is an essential component for the cathodes of many secondary battery designs, including Li-ion, as seen in the table below.

BATTERY TYPE   CATHODE ANODE ELECTROLYTE
Alkaline Single use Manganese dioxide (MnO2) Zinc Aqueous alkaline
Lead acid (secondary) Rechargeable Lead dioxide (PbO2) Lead Sulphuric acid
Nickel Cadmium (NiCd) (secondary) Rechargeable Nickel oxyhydroxide (NiOOH) Cadmium Potassium hydroxide
Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) (secondary) Rechargeable Hydrogen-absorbing alloy
Lithium Ion (LCO) (secondary) Rechargeable Lithium cobalt oxide (LiCoO2) Carbon-based, typically graphite  
Lithium Ion (NMC) (secondary) Rechargeable Lithium nickel manganese cobalt oxide (LiNiMnCoO2) Lithium salt in an organic solvent
Lithium Ion (NCA) (secondary) Rechargeable Lithium nickel cobalt aluminium (LiNiCoAlO2)

 

Nickel is an essential component for the cathodes of many secondary battery designs.

Batteries for storage

New nickel-containing battery technology is also playing a role in energy storage systems linked to renewable energy sources. Wind turbines or solar panels generate electricity when the wind or sun is available; modern battery technology allows this energy to be stored for use as and when required.

Modern battery technology allows energy to be stored for use as and when required

The move to energy storage systems has largely been driven by a significant growth in renewable energy resources, primarily wind and solar. In the US, wind and solar made up more than half of all new generating capacity in the past three years. Asia and Europe are also investing billions in renewables. However, the challenge is that the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine on demand. This is why batteries are being deployed to capture energy and release it when required, helping stabilise our complex and widespread electricity infrastructure.

Economies of scale are making Li-ion the dominant technology. This is a result of both the long history of Li-ion in the consumer electronics market and the enormous recent scale of investments in Li-ion manufacturing, much of it devoted the EV industry. Global suppliers of Li-ion battery cathode material are increasing production capacity of nickel-manganese-cobalt (NMC), with a typical ratio of 33% for each element.

Recycling batteries

With nickel-containing Li-ion battery use forecast to grow exponentially, end-of-life collection and recycling capacity is poised to grow to match. Regulatory requirements on end-of-life responsibilities as well as the safe handling and transport of Li-ion batteries will increase the need for proven recycling technologies. While such processes already exist and can be expanded as to meet demand, innovative companies around the world are exploring effective and economically-viable methods of meeting any future surge in demand.

Efficient Li-ion battery recycling is important for environmental reasons because of toxicity and safety concerns; proper handling and transportation of batteries are essential. In addition to the environmental aspects, a key economic driver for Li-ion battery recycling is the valuable metals and their compounds that can be recovered. This, of course, includes nickel, found in cathodes and anodes, which can be used for new batteries. The battery recycling process, which could be better described as the battery resource recovery process, can be pyro-metallurgical or hydro-metallurgical, or a combination of both.
Increasingly widespread use in the automotive industry will see the Li-ion global battery industry expanding rapidly. With automotive batteries currently equipped with warranties of five to eight years, end-of-life recycling will become big business in the not-too-distant future. In addition, the increasing volume of batteries becoming available for recycling in the medium term will reward investment in new recycling facilities and technological research that will increase the efficiency of material recovery and reduce costs, contributing to a circular economy.

World's largest lithium-ion battery

(Nickel Magazine Vol.33 n°1, p.7)

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