Between 2000 between 2000 and 2018, the amount in lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) produced was increased by 80. As of 2018, 60% of the batteries were utilized for electric vehicle (EVs). The development of electric vehicles will raise the need for batteries. The International Energy Agency estimating that between 2020 to 2030, the demand for batteries will double.
This scenario raises numerous concerns about the materials used in the production of these batteries. What resources are required? How do they impact the environment? consequences of removing them? Are they recyclable?
In examining the materials found in LIBs which are used in the majority of EVs The first thing to be aware of is that there are a variety of types of batteries. All contain lithium, but the other components differ the batteries used in phones or computers have cobalt in them, while the ones used in vehicles could contain manganese or nickel or none for iron-phosphate technologies.
The precise nature of the chemical components in these storage elements is not known, since it’s an industry secret. Additionally, constant improvements are introduced to batteries in order to enhance their performance, meaning that their chemical composition changes as time passes. In any event the principal materials that are used in the production of LIBs are cobalt, lithium, nickel manganese, graphite, and cobalt. All of them have been identified as having environmental and supply risks.
The supply issue for the materials in question is a complicated one. On other hand, the amount of reserves is influenced by geopolitical factors and changes in extraction methods; on the other hand, requirements for these materials are extremely dependent on hypothetical forecasts (number of EVs and the size of batteries).
Which are their environmental effects?
The issue of the negative environmental effects of manufacturing batteries is possibly more significant. Even if there are sufficient materials available, the effects of their usage must be considered carefully.
A woman separates cobalt from rocks near an underground mine located in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2015. Federico Scoppa/AFP
Research has shown that the production of batteries could have significant impacts regarding human toxicity and environmental pollution. In addition, there is the need to keep an eye on working conditions in certain countries. Additionally, analyzing environmental impacts require a thorough understanding of the battery composition and manufacturing procedures however, these details are difficult to acquire due to obvious issues related with industrial properties.
Can recycling these materials offer ways to mitigate the impact and risks?
It is possible to distinguish two major families of recycling battery processes that can be used either together or separately.
- Pyrometallurgy is a process that destroys plastic and organic components by exposure to extreme temperatures. It then leaves only the metal elements (nickel cobalt, nickel, cobalt, nickel, etc.). Then, they are separated through chemical processes.
- Hydrometallurgy is a process that is not a high-temperature stage. Instead it is able to separate the components by baths of solution that are chemically modified to the material to be removed.
In both instances batteries must be first be crushed into the form of a powder. Both of these processes operate on a massive scale recycling LIBs from phones and laptops in order to extract the cobalt in them. This precious material is so valuable that its recovery is essential to the financial viability of the LIB recycling industry.
However, as the LIB technologies utilized for EVs don’t all contain cobalt, the business model to recycle the batteries remains unanswered, and there’s no industrial industry that is capable of recycling the batteries. The primary reason for this is the absence of a sufficient amount of batteries that can be processed. The mass deployment of EVs is fairly recent, and the batteries they contain are not yet nearing the point of expiration.
In addition the definition of “end of life” is in itself a subject of debate. For instance, “traction” batteries (which permit EVs to function) are deemed unfit to be used when they’ve lost between 20 and 30 percent of their capacity, that is equivalent to a reduction in the autonomy of the vehicle.
Do EV batteries be reused?
There’s a debate over the possibility of a “second life” for these batteries that would enable the possibility of extending their usage and lessen the environmental impact. The primary issues are related to the reconfiguration that is required for batteries and their electrical monitoring mechanism. In the next step, applications need to be found for these batteries that have “reduced” capacity. They could be used to provide energy storage linked to the electrical grid since numerous studies have been conducted in this field.
Certain EV batteries can be used in solar farms, for instance as an environmentally and economically sound model that has been extensively debated. Here, we have the battery in an eMini. Underway in Ireland/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA
However, a significant actor like RTE the owner and operator for France’s electric transmission system is of the opinion that the application is unsuitable economically and functionally and suggests recycling the batteries of electric vehicles at they have reached the conclusion of their initial lifespan instead.
Establishing a recycling industry that can be adapted to evolving technology
The establishment of a recycling industry will require a fiscal model that is able to adapt to the wide range of battery technologies without the need to employ numerous different recycling methods.
Finally, it should be remembered that these environmental impacts and recycling concerns aren’t easy to address since the technology has not yet reached their maturity and their sustainability over the long term is not yet assured. LIBs change rapidly and lithium-metal batteries are in development for instance, and we’re even witnessing the emergence of other technologies that do not require lithium, like sodium-ion.
All of these reasons mean that the economic, environmental and social consequences of recycling and manufacturing EV batteries and their components should be examined for the foreseeable future. It is vital to keep using the grassroots pressure and legal pressure to increase transparency about manufacturing processes in order to measure their impact and determine ways to reduce their impact. In the near future, European research programs are placed in this field which includes the environmental impact of the latest batteries’ development.
The best way to limit the battery’s use is to restrict the size and power of motor vehicles. Filip Mroz/Unsplash, CC BY
But we mustn’t be waiting around for some mystical, clean inexpensive, high-performance battery technology, which seems more of a pipedream. It is crucial to reduce the increase in EV battery size and thus reduce the capacity, mass as well as the autonomy of vehicle itself.
This means that we’ll need to reconsider the way we move about and leave the car-based model behind – instead of trying to replace one type of technological innovation (the combustion engine) with a different one (the electrical motor).