Opinion

Lead is not dead

Three ways that lead can prove its place in the energy transition

Farid Ahmed

Principal Analyst, Lead Markets

Farid is an experienced metallurgist and technologist with extensive commercial, production and R&D exposure.

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Lead has an undeniable image problem. A huge amount of regulation has been passed in recent decades to control lead exposure and protect both the workforce and the environment from its toxic effects. But while some argue that this is an industry on its way to extinction, others are convinced that lead will play an important role in the energy transition.

This article is an extract from the insight ‘Lead is not dead: shaping the industry for a bright, green future’. Visit the store to access the full report, or read on for a summary of three ways that lead can show its green credentials.

1. Lead helps to drive the electric vehicle (EV) revolution

EVs play a crucial role in the future of transport. And almost all EVs still use lead batteries. The lithium-ion battery in an EV is equivalent to the fuel tank in an internal combustion engine (ICE) car – it stores energy to propel the vehicle. The lead battery has much the same function in both EVs and ICE vehicles – running electrical systems such as lights, windows, navigation, air-conditioning and airbag sensors.

Lead batteries for EVs are usually smaller than those in ICE cars, but this remains an important source of lead demand.

2. Lead helps to harness wind and solar power

EVs aren’t the only end use for batteries that power the fight against climate change. Global demand for electrical power will increase by well over 50% over the next couple of decades. Most of this increase will be met by renewable energy, chiefly wind and solar power. And as renewables rise up the energy mix, so does the need for energy storage systems (ESS) to store this power for when it’s needed.

There is currently a higher rate of technical development in lead batteries than at any other time in their 160+ year history. These developments have the potential to narrow the performance gap with lithium-ion – its principal rival for the burgeoning ESS sector.

At the same time, as EV adoption increases, demand for key lithium-ion battery raw materials, especially cobalt and nickel, is likely to outpace supply. If the availability of lithium-ion batteries is constrained they would be used preferentially in EVs, where their light weight and power density are at a premium. Lead batteries are well-placed to meet the needs of non-EV applications, particularly ESS.

3. Modern lead recycling and production is highly efficient

Unlike other commonly recycled materials, such as paper or plastics, lead can be recycled an infinite number of times without diminishing in quality. And almost 100% of all lead batteries are recycled, creating a huge pool of lead in service. This pool continually goes around the recycling loop: from being a battery in service, to being scrapped and recycled back to lead to make a new battery.

In Europe, regulatory changes from the European End-of-Life Vehicle Directive and the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) could result in bans on the use of lead in batteries. Such bans would disrupt the dynamics of the recycling loop – with significant implications for the environment as well as the industry.

To read more about the potential impact of a lead ban, including the knock-on effect on demand for lithium-ion capacity, visit the store to read this insight in full.

For lead, it’s not easy being green

The lead industry maintains that lead can – and should – play a role in the energy transition. And our research shows that its medium- and long-term growth prospects still look healthy.

Vigilance and collaboration will be key. The industry must keep a watchful eye on its environmental performance, its health and safety record, and on the regulatory landscape. And it must recognise that it will be universally judged by the standards of the worst lead producer, not the best.

Interested in lead and zinc market dynamics? 

In a recent webinar, Andrew Thomas, Research Director Zinc & Lead Markets and Jonathan Leng, Principal Analyst, Zinc Markets, asked: is coronavirus accelerating the zinc supply side correction?

Understanding the effect of the pandemic to date and the scope for further reductions to planned mine output is critical to the near-term zinc supply outlook. If you missed it, fill in the form at the top of this page for a complimentary replay.

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