Fossil energy stakeholders are seeing one market after another slip through their fingers as the bioeconomy of the future begins to take shape. The latest development involves a wood-based replacement for the graphite commonly used in lithium-ion EV batteries. Graphite can be synthesized from coal derivatives as well as petroleum, but it looks like an army of eucalyptus trees is about to slam that door shut.
More Graphite For EV Batteries
Graphite comes into the EV picture as the material of choice for the anode, which is the part of a battery that loads up on electrons when recharging. Battery makers have begun to introduce silicon as a high-performing full or partial substitute for graphite. However, silicon battery technology is a relatively new development and widespread adoption is somewhere in the future. Until then, graphite still has plenty of opportunities to engage with the zero emission mobility revolution.
The growth of the EV battery market has been good news for the coal and oil industries, which have been promoting their synthetic graphite as an alternative to natural graphite mined from the earth. Fair enough. Mining is not exactly free of impacts and supply chain issues. Last year, for example, the US Geological Survey noted observed that graphite is listed as a critical material, but it has not been mined in the US for 70 years.
Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal observed that automakers have begun to view natural graphite as a “green” alternative to fossil-sourced graphite. However, whether the graphite is synthesized from fossils or mined, producing battery-grade graphite is an energy intensive operation, and not a particularly sustainable, either. That puts the auto industry between a rock and a hard place.
EV Batteries From Trees…
Renewable, bio-based sources of carbon could offer a more sustainable pathway, which explains why suddenly everyone is talking about lignin, which forms the tough cell walls that make trees stand up.
Two years ago, a research team at Penn State University described one of the stumbling blocks for lignin-to-graphite conversion. “As a substitute for oil-derived tar or coal-extracted pitch, biopolymers such as lignin are a natural, and renewable alternative and are commercially available,” they wrote. “Yet it forms amorphous, non-graphitic carbon.”
The team suggested that doping the process with graphene oxide would make the carbon self-order into graphite.
Another approach popped up last year, when the American Chemistry Society journal Chemistry and Sustainable Engineering published a study that compared various sources of lignin for conversion to bio-based graphite. “Softwoods reached the highest degree of crystallinity followed by switchgrass samples and had less variability in particle sizes,” the research team noted. “These results suggest lignin carbons extracted from softwoods and switchgrass are viable substitutes for graphite.”
…Are Almost Here
The UK battery innovator Allotrope Energy is among those listening in. The company came across the CleanTechnica radar in last fall with a an extremely fast-charging lithium-carbon formula, with an eye on the market for scooters and other smallish EVs.
Allotrope was playing its battery chemistry close to the vest back then, but now the secret is out. Last week the leading Brazilian conglomerate Suzano announced that its new Suzano Ventures branch has put up $6.7 million in funding to help Allotrope accelerate its EV batteries, which strongly indicates that lignin is the source of the carbon, which it is.
“Allotrope Energy’s battery technology can be made using carbon extracted from an abundant biomaterial co-product of Suzano’s own production process of creating pulp from sustainably sourced wood,” Suzano explained in a press release, referring to its specialization in eucalyptus plantations.
“In addition to being ultra-fast charging batteries, they do not require the use of materials such as cobalt, nickel and rare earth metals, where shortages have been impacting global supply chains and increasing costs,” Suzano added.
Eucalyptus To The Rescue
Eucalyptus is classified as a hardwood, not a softwood, but apparently Suzano and Allotrope have figured out how to coerce lignin-based carbon into forming graphite.
Suzano provides a leg up through its experience in marketing its “Ecolig” lignin as a bio-based polymer.
“Lignin is the second most abundant polymer from renewable sources in nature and can be found in the eucalyptus wood that we plant and grow,” the company explains. “Ecolig products can be used in adhesives for plywood in furniture, rubber for tires and industrial hoses, and thermoplastics such as eucalyptus seedling tubes.”
“Ecolig is a product with multiple chemical functionalities and versatility for diverse applications,” they add. “Due to its plant-based origin, the process to obtain it and its molecular structure, Ecolig has high antioxidant potential, absorption of UV radiation and binding properties.”
Who’s Afraid Of The ESG?
Those of you familiar with the Suzano name may recall a series of social and environmental controversies related to its eucalyptus plantations in Brazil. In recent years the company has been pivoting into a model more consistent with ESG (environment, social, governance) principles. Last year GreenBiz gave Suzano a thumbs-up for using degraded pasture lands to plant their trees, and for collaborating with local and indigenous communities in São Paulo, Brazil.
The company’s new Suzano Ventures branch also indicates a stepped-up focus on sustainability.
Investing in EV batteries made with renewable material is just the first step for Suzano Ventures. The firm launched last summer with a $70 million pot and a mission to “some of the world’s most pressing environmental challenges,” so there is plenty of money left over for other projects.
Suzano launched the Ventures venture following the success of its 2017 investment in the Finnish pulp-based textiles company Spinnova.
The Allotrope investment falls under Suzano’s focus on bioeconomy products, including renewable packaging materials. Suzano is also looking for startups that offer new opportunities to improve crop yields.
Another aim of the fund is to improve and quantify carbon sequestration. That’s interesting on account of the overlap with regenerative agriculture, a practice with indigenous roots that has become popularized in recent years.
Full-on regenerative agriculture includes community well being and environmental quality goals, though it is best known for a focus on conserving and improving soil health. Leading global agriculture firms like Suzano are beginning to zero in on the soil aspect to take advantage of government policies that reward carbon sequestration. Here in the US, for example, the Department of Agriculture recently started a program to help farmers reap the benefits of carbon sequestration.
As for riding around in your wood-powered zero emission mobility device, you may have to wait a while before Allotrope’s EV batteries hit the passenger car market. The company is focusing on electric mopeds and scooters for the time being, in collaboration with the company Mahle Powertrain.
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Photo: EV batteries made with biobased material (courtesy of Allotrope Energy).
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