Addressing Concerns About Electric Vehicle Batteries

Although multiple reports confirm that Electric Vehicles (EVs) are already cleaner than internal combustion engine vehicles and getting cleaner in terms of lifetime global warming emissions, there are concerns about the sustainability of lithium ion EV batteries.

These concerns extend beyond EV batteries. Lithium ion batteries are used in billions of cellphones, laptops, and every other battery-powered device on earth.

Concerns about lithium ion batteries may be short-lived, as battery technology is advancing quickly, and EV battery components may be very different in the near future. Companies are investing enormous resources in the development of new battery technologies, including glass, lithium metal, lithium-sulfur, sodium, graphene, and zinc air.  It is likely that one or more of these technologies will arrive on the market in the next decade.

IF EV batteries continue to be made of lithium ion, the primary concerns are: 1) labor practices for mining cobalt; 2) environmental impacts of extracting lithium; 3) sufficient supply of materials for EV batteries; 4) carbon emissions from battery manufacture; and 5) toxic waste from disposal of used batteries.

1) Concern: Labor practices for mining cobalt

Some writers have sought to cast doubt on the ability of electric vehicles (EVs) to replace gasoline-powered vehicles based on concerns about the supply of the mineral cobalt contained within their batteries. It is true that lithium ion batteries in cell phones, laptops and now even EVs require extracting natural resources — just as most items that humans consume. One such resource is cobalt. About 2/3 of cobalt currently comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it is mined using child labor and other unethical practices. Indeed, the Democratic Republic of Congo is rated the 3d worst country for child labor practices. This is a problem that is not unique to EV batteries. We need to keep insisting on ethical, sustainable supply chains — not just for cobalt, but for all materials and products we use.

Fortunately, many battery suppliers are working to address this issue. A coalition of car makers has committed to source cobalt ethically, and Ford, LG Chem, IBM and Huayou Cobalt have undertaken a Blockchain project to address the problem in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

2) Concern: Environmental impacts of extracting lithium

Top lithium producers are Australia and Chile. The majority of lithium is extracted from water in brine pools and brine deposits, primarily in the desert in Chile. A naturally occurring concentrated solution is pumped out of the ground and put into large ponds to evaporate the excess water. The remaining lithium compound is then purified and processed. The main environmental concern with this extraction process is that it can impact water supply in the desert. However, new extraction technologies are in development.

In Australia, lithium is mined from the rocks, which, like coal mining, raises environmental issues of water usage and reducing pollution and contamination of local water sources. As with all minerals that are mined, care must be taken to ensure the sustainability of the mining process.

3) Concern: Sufficient supplies of EV battery materials

Fifteen countries have announced plans to phase out gasoline vehicles and move to electric cars by as early as 2025, and the number is growing. Some worry there won’t be sufficient supplies of cobalt or lithium to serve the increased demand for EV batteries. This concern is not well-founded, for these reasons:

Cobalt:

Many EVs, including the Nissan Leaf, use batteries that do not rely on cobalt. Cobalt is not a requirement for EV batteries.

For those EVs which do use cobalt, their cobalt usage is likely to decline by about 70%.  Presently, Tesla and Bolt batteries contain an equal mix of nickel, manganese, and cobalt.  The new generation of batteries (expected to reach market within a year) will contain eight parts nickel (an abundant material) for each part of manganese and cobalt.

To the extent batteries continue to use cobalt, cobalt mining is expanding in Canada and Australia, with major new mines in development.  

Cobalt was historically not a mineral in great demand, and was produced mainly as a byproduct of other mining. It is likely that entirely new sources of cobalt will be developed as mining companies zero in on cobalt sources.  

Finally, recycling of the cobalt in EV batteries is expanding rapidly, and is likely to grow to serve 10% of cobalt demand by 2025, increasing further as additional EV batteries are retired.  

Lithium:

Lithium is the 25th most abundant element. There is currently an oversupply of lithium on the market, driving prices down. However, some analysts predict a possible lithium shortage by 2050 as demand increases; others forecast lithium supplies to last 50 years.

As demand for lithium grows, efforts are under way to develop additional sources in the U.S. as well as Australia. Given the abundance of lithium and developments around its discovery and extraction, it seems unlikely that a shortage of lithium will make a shift to EVs impossible.

4) Concern: Carbon emissions from manufacture of EV batteries:

All told, battery electric cars generate only half the emissions of the average comparable gasoline car, even when battery manufacturing is included in the calculation. EV battery manufacture, like many manufacturing processes, is getting cleaner as more renewable energy is involved in the process. Tesla’s Gigafactory in Nevada is committed to manufacturing EV batteries using 100% solar energy by the end of 2019. Audi’s e-Tron batteries are made at a carbon-neutral facility. Also, as the electric vehicle industry grows, battery recycling rates will increase, further reducing the emissions from battery manufacture.

5) Concern: Toxic waste from disposal of used EV batteries:  

Current EV batteries are forecast to last for 500,000 miles or more. When they degrade enough to be unsuitable for cars, they are being re-used for electricity storage. But what will happen to them when they’re no longer suitable for any use? With current technology, 95% of the materials in the battery can be recycled. Tesla, BMW and Formula E are committed to full battery recycling, and VW is launching a recycling plant. China recycled 67,000 tons of lithium ion batteries last year, and is anticipated to recycle 100,000 tons this year. Predictions are that 75% of all used EV batteries will be recycled by 2025. There’s a good chance that figure will be higher. The US Energy Department recently launched a research center on lithium ion battery recycling, and recycling technologies are being developed and tested in China, the U.S. and Finland.

What’s needed now is policies requiring battery recycling, like those being implemented in China and Europe. Commitments to make a complete transition to electric vehicles will help provide the market certainty needed for mass investment in battery recycling facilities.

Conclusion

Batteries are a challenge for electrification of the vehicle fleet, but not an overwhelming one. New sources of production, battery recycling, improved focus on human rights issues in Africa, and changing battery technologies will allow EVs to continue supplanting gasoline vehicles. In March 2019, Amnesty International called for action by government, industry, innovators, investors and consumers to create an ethical and sustainable battery, which can be used for electric vehicles and in the electronic industry, within five years. We shouldn’t stop the EV revolution because of electric vehicle batteries.