Joint WIN and Chemical Engineering series continues to engage in discourse on Sustainable Future Perspectives

Tuesday, May 9, 2023
Left side: Faculty Hall filled with students Right side: Dr. Zhongwei Chen, Dr. Khalil Amine, Dr.Jeff Gostick, Dr. Michael Fowler, Dr. Sushanta Mitra

It was a full house for the second Sustainable Future Perspectives event cohosted by the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology (WIN) and the Department of Chemical Engineering. The collaborative event, titled “Recycling Battery Materials: Aiming for Net Zero” aimed to explore sustainable solutions to meet increasing energy demands and for the future of our planet.

 Faculty Hall was crowded with graduate students and battery experts at the event which took place on April 12th.

It was an engaging discourse as panelists, took questions from audience members about the future of batteries, battery recycling, clean energy, and energy storage systems. Co-moderator Professor Jeff Gostick, Azzam-Dullien Endowed Chair began the event with a visual presentation outlining how climate change is escalating.

The discussion kicked off with two critical questions. First, how do we build sustainable energy structures and meet future demand without depleting our resources, and secondly, whether there are enough trained students and personnel working in the field of batteries and energy storage to keep up with future demand for energy and infrastructure for sustainable energy sources.

Recycling battery materials is crucial for realizing a sustainable future. As the demand for Electric Vehicles (EV), battery-powered technologies and renewable energy storage systems increases, the demand for sustainable battery materials becomes imperative.

The panelists were guest lecturer Dr. Khalil Amine a Distinguished Fellow from the Argonne National LaboratoryProfessor Zhongwei Chen, and Professor Michael FowlerCanada Research Chair in Zero-Emission Vehicles & Hydrogen Energy from the Department of Chemical Engineering. Professor Sushanta Mitra, Executive Director of WIN was co-moderator of the event.

The panel agreed that there is a deficit of people trained to work in the essential field of recyclable batteries.

Chen, Canada Research Chair in Advanced Materials for Clean Energy commented that engineers who have an interdisciplinary background in the field of batteries and energy storage are needed to address future demands for sustainable energy. 

The Department of Chemical Engineering offers the only course at the University of Waterloo in electrochemical engineering. The panelists concurred that this one course is not sufficient to keep up with demand. The panelists argued that a separate program that solely focuses on energy and would train interdisciplinary engineers is urgently needed.

The conversation turned to prospects of battery recycling. Amine asserted that efficient and large-scale battery recycling capabilities are still years away. Nickel and cobalt are the biggest challenges and most of the current recycling efforts are focused on these two metals. Efficient recovery and reuse of metals used in batteries would significantly reduce the carbon footprint of battery production.

To produce energy sustainably, panelists agreed that finding a better, faster way to process lithium needs to be developed given that lithium is the key element in lithium-ion batteries. Alternative battery composites to lithium–ion batteries are those made with aluminum and sodium. These are currently being developed.

Sodium-ion batteries which Amine is developing use materials that can be derived from seawater, which is plentiful and eco-friendly. Aluminum batteries still face rechargeability issues.

Panelists explored the tension that exists as researchers need to balance the desire to develop technology that is promising and novel as opposed to technology that politicians and industrial partners can be convinced to implement.

The fact that much-needed innovation can be controlled and driven by industry was another point of discussion. The desire to earn by industry partners can sometimes cause a conflict of interest with researchers. So, if technology will make industrial manufacturing processes longer or is expensive or the utilization of the new technology will cut into their profits, they may try to quash the research.

 For example, sodium batteries are closest to commercialization, however, this makes lithium battery producers very nervous. This presents a roadblock to researchers eager to implement new processes and technologies that can contribute to sustainability and a circular economy.

After a lively discussion, the panel concluded that to address clean energy production and storage goals, policy engagement must be more closely aligned with innovative research and sustainable technologies.