Are EV Batteries Environmentally Sustainable?
Greening Up Clean Energy Transportation
Recently, we covered the wide range of electric vehicles (EVs) hitting the market as the U.S. reduces and ultimately eliminates fossil fuel vehicles. EVs play an important role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but there is one component that could be a threat to the environment: their lithium-ion batteries.
Lithium-ion batteries are nothing new. Before they ever powered an EV, they were providing juice for phones, computers and other devices. They also provide storage for off-grid systems like solar.
Resource demand and the environmental cost of mining are already driving solutions to reuse and recycle lithium-ion batteries. Ultimately, more earth friendly components will replace lithium-ion. One viable alternative is ordinary table salt.
A Second Life
The carbon footprint of a lithium-ion battery can be reduced up to 17% by repurposing it after it can no longer power an EV.
“If we want to do more with the materials that we have, recycling shouldn’t be the first solution,” said James Pennington, who leads the World Economic Forum’s circular economy program. “The best thing to do at first is to keep things in use for longer,” he said.
Jessika Richter, who researches environmental policy at Lund University, adds that while lithium-ion batteries can no longer run EVs, there is plenty of excess capacity that could be used for storage at solar or wind farms. “There is a lot of [battery] capacity left at the end of first use in electric vehicles,” she said.
This complementary use is important because the U.S. needs to grow renewable energy production, and reduce energy systems run on fossil fuels to meet climate goals. Today, solar power represents only about 3% of energy grids. When renewable energy provides electricity, EVs are four times more efficient than fossil fuel vehicles, have fewer repair costs because of less moving engine parts, and have no emissions from the tailpipe.
Recycling Lithium-ion EV batteries
Lithium-ion batteries are recyclable. They contain many valuable materials worth recovering and saving from a landfill.
Jessica Dunn, an analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, describes the basic recycling process:
“Prior to recycling, the battery is disassembled and shredded using large machinery, breaking the battery into small pieces. Once the shredding is completed, the materials are sifted and separated based on size. This divides them into three different categories: plastics, ferrous materials, and non-ferrous materials (also called black mass). The black mass consists of the critical materials, cobalt, lithium, nickel, and manganese, which can individually be recovered using a hydrometallurgical process.
Once materials have been recovered, they can then be processed and used in the manufacturing of new lithium-ion batteries. This is a preferable source to using virgin ore because it reduces the amount of mining necessary to produce EVs.”
Batteries can be recycled and made into new batteries at the same location. There is a rush to develop such “Gigafactories” in the U.S., anticipating a time when a flood of used EV batteries hit the market.
Recycling within the U.S. also reduces costs and the climate impact of shipping the batteries elsewhere.
Researchers, scientists and the automotive industry are keen to find alternatives for lithium-ion batteries. Besides environmental concerns, rising costs and scarcity of lithium-ion are driving the change.
Researchers have come up with several alternatives in the search for inexpensive, abundant, safe and sustainable battery chemistry to replace lithium-ion.
A recent U.S. study found calcium ions work as a greener, more efficient, and less expensive energy storage alternative to lithium-ion in batteries. It is also an abundance element.
Salt sits one square below lithium on the periodic table. Because the two are close chemically, salt may be a natural fit to replace lithium, without the environmental baggage.
Magnesium can carry a charge twice that of lithium and other replacement elements. Since efficiency is an issue, magnesium may provide a more powerful EV battery that is safer than lithium.
Along the lines of salt, researchers in Germany have developed a prototype battery based on seawater. Seawater is plentiful and easily harvested.
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Replacing Lithium-ion Altogether
The inventor of the lithium-ion battery, John Goodenough, has teamed up with Maria Helena Braga at the University of Porto in Portugal to create an entirely new and unusual battery. The key component is the electrolyte, which is made of glass infused with sodium ions. The concept is complex and other researchers are not able to duplicate it.
In the future, we may power EVs by pulling moisture from the air. While still under development, John Andrews at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, has a prototype that splits protons from water, which are stored in the battery. By adding oxygen from the air, electricity and water are produced.
Liquid batters are called flow batteries. They work on a similar principle to regular car batteries, but all the components are dissolved in liquids. Someday, an EV could be powered by pumping liquid into it, like gasoline is done now.
Overall, EVs are still more environmentally friendly than a fossil fuel vehicle and the lead acid battery it runs on. Although lithium-ion batteries pose environmental challenges, EV batteries can be repurposed for solar and wind energy storage, extending their useful life. Then, recycling the battery lessens the need for new raw materials. Finally, research is ongoing to replace lithium-ion all together. Results are promising, but it will take time to ramp up a new solution to meet the volume of the automotive industry.
For more information on EV battery development and recycling, visit:
- U.S. Department of Energy’s ReCell Center
- National Blueprint for Lithium Batteries, 2021-2030 (pdf) (June 2021, report published by the Federal Consortium for Advanced Batteries)