The room for innovation within the battery industry is expanding immensely, as the race for electrification continues. As we move away from fossil fuels to try and find renewable energy solutions to tackle the climate crisis, the growing need for sustainable solutions is bigger than ever.
One of the great challenges we have in today’s battery industry is that lithium-ion batteries use the material graphite. Graphite is a fossil carbon which is extracted through mining techniques or synthetically produced, and subsequently creates social and environmental consequences.
Stora Enso, a leading provider in renewable products, has come up with a solution where graphite carbon is replaced with tree-based carbon, specifically from lignin, extracted from trees.
I had the great pleasure to catch up with Lauri Lehtonen, SVP & Head of Innovation, Biomaterials at Stora Enso to talk more about the process behind tree-based batteries, and what this means for the battery industry.
So how does it work? A lithium-ion battery contains a cathode, which is a positive electrode, and an anode, a negative electrode. Today what is usually used within the anode is graphite carbon, which as stated before, can hinder the potential of technological and environmental advances.
“We replace the carbon that is already there with tree-based carbon and that helps it to become much more sustainable. This is because, currently, the carbon used to today is made through mining graphite or synthetic ways which has its sustainability challenges,” commented Lauri.
“Everything comes from underground, unless you change something, and we are trying to change that and do it via trees and growth”.
Trees are composed of 20-30% lignin which is one of the biggest renewable sources of carbon anywhere and it is a side stream in the production of cellulose fiber. Most of these side streams like lignin have traditionally been burnt for energy, therefore, Stora Enso ensures that more of the tree is put to better use by turning it into hard carbon.
“We are taking a side stream and putting it to more valuable use and helping something become much more sustainable which is the battery industry and the electric mobility goal,” said Lauri.
He continued to say: “The sustainability movement and the need for sustainable solutions is currently driven by Europe. However, this scales anywhere where you have biorefineries and where you have trees. It can be a global solution.
Stora Enso’s Sunila Mill in Finland is currently the world’s biggest producer of so called kraft lignin, with a 50,000 tons capacity per year. Lignin has been commercially produced there since 2015, and in 2021, Stora Enso added a new pilot plant where the lignin is further processed into hard carbon. This was a €10 million investment and is a proof that this can be done on an industrial scale.
“I think there are two things in the world that we get everything from, mining underground or grown. We have neglected this growing area and if you look at what we get from areas of growth, the most common association is with food, but the reality is that we get very high-tech materials already from growing materials.” said Lehtonen
“The pharmaceutical industry is a good example, many of their products are grown. We should not neglect that” he continued.
The purpose of electrification is to enable the move away from fossil-based energy sources. Our goal is to provide solutions for battery technology and Stora Enso is leading the way to new and exciting ideas, taking the forefront of the industry.