For months now, I have been drowning in my search to find an electric vehicle (EV). Weighing options. Living with car shortages. The batteries on these are huge. I got consumed with the question: How can the world sustain everyone driving an EV? Here is what I discovered about these batteries.
There is a race to expand EV production that seems to have picked up speed in recent years. The key to the ability to ramp up production and standardize EVs is, of course, the battery. EV batteries are rechargeable batteries, most commonly lithium–ion or lithium–polymer batteries, that rely on sourcing raw materials that are expensive, energy–intensive, and environmentally damaging to produce.
Yet these high–capacity batteries are also touted as essential to fueling the transportation sector with clean energy. Given the damage to the environment and the number of preventable deaths resulting from excess pollution caused by cars and trucks — about 20,000 Americans a year, largely in low–income communities situated near highways and busy streets — cleaning and decarbonizing the transit sector is no small thing.
Environmental and political impacts of EV batteries
To encourage the sector’s move to all–electric, President Biden has introduced a $3 billion plan to invest in the U.S.’s EV battery production. What does this ultimately mean for the environment, for mining operations in the U.S. and abroad, and for research and development of the batteries themselves? Biden’s initiative comes at a time when fossil–fuel prices are soaring, but moving toward all-electric cars and more battery storage across the energy grid comes with its own complications — political and environmental.
To begin, there is a distinct mismatch between the world’s current plans for combatting climate change and the availability of critical mineral resources needed to realize those ambitions. According to data from the International Energy Agency (IEA), an electric car requires 6× the amount of minerals needed in a conventional vehicle. These minerals and rare–Earth metals used in each battery are concentrated in a few places globally — currently, about 80% of U.S. lithium–ion battery imports come from China.
In turn, China has contracted mining operations set up in many of the mineral–rich regions of the global south. China also processes and refines 80% of the rare–Earth metals that the U.S. imports, meaning without identifying other means of both mining and processing, the politics of necessary resources are a complex snarl, and more than 6× the current supply is needed to meet demand over the next few decades.
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Demand for lithium is expected to far outstrip supply by 2040 unless new sources of vital materials are tapped. (Source: IEA)
The life cycle of the EV battery begins with extraction. Common environmental side effects of lithium mining include water loss, ground destabilization, biodiversity loss, increased salinity in nearby rivers, contaminated soil, and toxic waste. Moves to expand battery production carry a lesser threat than continuing to burn fossil fuels, but that does not mean the risk of damaging species and habitats is still present.
Lithium operations have already reduced populations of two flamingo species in Chile’s salt flats, and a proposed site could destroy most of the known range of a rare wildflower called Tiehm’s buckwheat. The mining boom also threatens water supplies to local communities and creates precarity for Indigenous communities. EV battery materials have also sparked interest in deep–seabed mining, a process that could endanger the sensitive ecosystems found there.
As for the labor, the work is physically demanding and underpaid. In an interview with human rights watchdog group Rights and Accountability in Development (RAID), reported by The Verge, a worker at a Tesla supplier — Kamoto Copper Company (KCC) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo — notes that food provided to miners is of poor quality, and they are provided only a little over a liter of water for a day of work in sweltering mines.
The DRC produces roughly 70% of the world’s cobalt supply, and watchdog groups have been raising the alarm about dangerous working conditions and the use of child labor in artisanal mining operations for years. These and other employee accounts of poor conditions and insufficient wages are a warning sign of exploitation and extraction rooted deep in the supply chain that is fueling the EV boom.
It is also notable that while Biden did invoke a Cold War–era law at the end of March 2022 to boost domestic mineral and metals mining, his plan does not earmark funding for new mining projects. Rather, it allocates funds for boosting U.S. processing and reclamation of the raw materials for battery production.
Based on the IEA report, demand for graphite is expected to increase 25× over the next 20 years, while lithium demand will increase by a factor of 70. One way to alleviate the burden of extracting new materials is through recycling. No recycling method will solve all the scarcity issues, but the end–of–life (EOL) conditions of EV batteries certainly require attention as the production of EVs ramps up.
Reduce, reuse, recycle
EVs are a tough environment for batteries: Lithium–ion batteries degrade significantly with service life cycles. Degradation begins from the first cycle of discharging and charging, eventually reaching conditions such that they can no longer provide satisfactory performance in vehicles in large volumes.
In the late 2010s, between 200,000 and 500,000 EV batteries were retired in the U.S. each year. By 2025, annual EOL batteries may be closer to 1 million units, and that number may reach 2 million by 2040.
There are five major pathways — excluding reduction, which is expected — for dead EV batteries, all with their own risks and advantages. Sustainability requires innovations in recycling the technology, though the process is expensive and hazardous. (Source: MIT, published in Cell Reports Physical Science)
Of the five retirement options for these batteries — reuse, restoration, recycling, incineration, and disposal — all but reuse spell the end of the entire battery life along with the end of its automotive service life. Disposal is the least energy–efficient but may be necessary to avoid exposing workers to electrolyte release and hazardous leaching of chemicals — however, improper disposal can also lead to contaminated soil and groundwater.
Incineration refers to using the battery materials as fuel for other processes but risks releasing toxic gases into the air. Restoration is an option between recycling and reuse in which the cathode materials are restored for battery manufacture without any further processing. Reuse opens several pathways in which a spent battery may be refurbished or directly reused either in another vehicle or for different applications. Both recycling and reuse are ways of giving batteries second lives, though reuse requires less processing.
Recycling is perhaps the most studied of the five options and offers quite a few pathways for retired EV batteries, as it is stimulated and supported by policy in many countries. It is also an arduous and dangerous process that involves splitting the battery apart to extract the metals inside — and even simple transportation and storage of the roughly 960–pound batteries can be hazardous.
The second lives that reuse and recycling provide vary greatly: Audi has partnered with German–Indian startup Nunam to reuse batteries from test vehicles as batteries for e–rickshaws. Batteries have been repurposed to power public transit buses, or as renewable energy sources for homes and businesses.
The influx of EOL batteries as the adoption of EVs ramps up has also spawned companies dedicated to safely and sustainably recycling. Call2Recycle is an Atlanta–based organization aiming to create a closed loop between producers, consumers, and recyclers that makes it easier to put dead e–mobility batteries into the hands of those equipped to recycle them.
Call2Recycle CEO Leo Raudys, in an interview with electrek, says he is hopeful that continued investment in a circular economy and that efforts to keep the recycling process entirely domestic can result in a fully sustainable supply chain. There are many, many barriers and complications to developing a sustainable transit sector, but there is also hope.
It seems to me that EVs are not the perfect solution to the world’s energy and climate problems. It is a noble step in the right direction but leaves a trail of destruction. My solution, currently, is a simple one: I am just driving less.
—Cabe Atwell is an electrical engineer living in the Chicago area.
>> This article was originally published on our sister site, EE Times.
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