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Lignin: The Unsung Hero of Electric Vehicle Battery Production

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As the demand for electric vehicles continues to soar, scientists are on a mission to find sustainable materials for batteries. One material that is emerging as a strong contender is lignin, the substance that gives trees their woody texture.

Finnish paper producer Stora Enso, one of the world’s largest private forest owners, has been experimenting with using lignin, a polymer found in trees, to make electric vehicle batteries that can charge up in as little as eight minutes. The company found that around 30% of a tree is lignin, making it a valuable resource for battery production.

Lignin is the substance that “glues” cellulose fibers together and makes trees stiff. It is also made up of carbon, which is a great material for the anode, a vital component in batteries. The lithium-ion battery in your phone most likely has a graphite anode, which is a form of carbon with a layered structure.

Stora Enso’s engineers discovered that they could extract lignin from the waste pulp already being produced at some of their facilities and use it to make carbon material for battery anodes. The company is partnering with Swedish firm Northvolt and plans to manufacture batteries as early as 2025.

The global demand for batteries is expected to grow significantly in the coming years as more people buy electric cars and store energy at home. According to management consultancy McKinsey, in 2015, a few hundred additional gigawatt hours were required annually across the world’s battery stocks. However, by 2030, this number is expected to rocket to a few thousand additional GWh required annually as the world moves away from fossil fuels.

The problem is that lithium-ion batteries, which are currently the most widely used, rely on environmentally damaging industrial processes and mining. Additionally, many of the materials used in these batteries are toxic and difficult to recycle, and some are sourced in countries with poor human rights records.

For example, the process of making synthetic graphite involves heating carbon to temperatures of up to 3,000C for weeks at a time. The energy for this is often sourced from coal-fired power plants in China, according to consultancy Wood Mackenzie.

This is why scientists are searching for sustainable battery materials that are more widely available. Lignin-derived carbon structures, such as those being developed by Stora Enso, could be a viable alternative to traditional lithium-ion batteries.

The use of lignin in battery production not only offers a more sustainable option but also provides an opportunity for paper and pulp companies to diversify their revenue streams. With the demand for batteries only set to increase, lignin could be a game-changer in the quest for sustainable energy storage.

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