The essential metal fuelling the EU’s homegrown battery industry

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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Delivery of raw materials by helicopter [Bulgarian Antarctic Research Institute (BAI), (2007)]

In a remote research station in Antarctica European scientists are at the forefront of investigating the impact of climate change. Their work is vital to understanding both the causes of global warming and what nations must do together to, quite literally, save the planet.

Their essential work is reliant on EU-made lead batteries powering the specialist equipment, laboratories and accommodation in this extreme environment.

Closer to home, lead batteries continue to play a vital role in our everyday lives – from transportation to telecoms and healthcare. Underpinning this essential power source is a fully sustainable EU circular economy that proves the rule that you can make and recycle batteries end-to-end in a secure, safe, and sustainable way, today, in Europe.

Lead is a metal that can be infinitely recycled without any loss of performance. Almost 100 per cent of the lead batteries collected throughout the EU are fully recycled. On average more than 80 per cent of a new lead battery is made up of recycled material, most of it originating from collected EU waste.

No other battery technology currently meets this level of sustainability, but it is a requirement the European Commission wishes to instil as part its new EU Batteries Regulation.

And the vital ingredient – lead – is produced in Europe, mostly from recycling.

This is the circular economy in action. It is not a theory, neither a concept, nor a goal. It is happening right here, right now on a vast scale – more than a million tonnes of lead batteries are recycled in the EU every year.

Vast amounts of metal and minerals will be required to deliver the EU’s ambitious low carbon targets. As a recent International Energy Agency report points out, the ambitious plans for green growth will place severe strain on the supply of metals and minerals, making the secure supply of lead for battery technologies and the transition to a low carbon future more significant.

Many raw materials are sourced from around the world where supply is, to say the least, a matter of concern. In contrast, Europe’s lead value chain is strategically autonomous.

And while lead matters enormously to the EU as an essential raw material for EU-manufactured batteries, it also remains a critical metal in many other essential products and strategically important industries.

  • In aviation: there are more than 20 uses in the aeronautical and space industries where lead alloys are essential to critical safety applications.
  • In healthcare: lead-based radiation shielding is the most efficient and sustainable way to protect patients and staff.
  • In renewables: lead-protected cables link windfarms to the power grid.
  • In recycling: lead is key to the process of recycling a range of other metals, including tin, silver and gold, and critical raw materials such as platinum, bismuth and gallium.

The drive to achieve a low carbon future and transform our economies into powerhouses of green growth requires new thinking on how the EU sources its raw materials and retains their value for future generations.

However, it is equally important to recognise the essential role that established industries already play in achieving these ambitions, such as the strategically autonomous lead industry successfully fuelling a circular economy for batteries.

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