Article by: Cabe Atwell
How can the world support everyone who drives an electric vehicle? Here is what I found out about these batteries.
For months, I have been drowning in my search for an electric vehicle (EV). Weighing options. Living with car shortages. The batteries on these are huge. I was overwhelmed with the question: how can the world support everyone who drives an electric vehicle? Here is what I found out about these batteries.
There is a race to expand electric vehicle production that seems to have accelerated in recent years. The key to the ability to scale up production and standardize electric vehicles is, of course, the battery. EV batteries are rechargeable batteries, most often lithium-ion or lithium-polymer batteries, which depend on the supply of expensive, energy-consuming and environmentally harmful raw materials to produce.
Yet these high-capacity batteries are also touted as essential for powering the transport sector with clean energy. Considering the damage to the environment and the number of preventable deaths resulting from excessive pollution caused by cars and trucks – approximately 20,000 Americans per year, mostly in low-income communities near highways and streets – cleaning up and decarbonizing the transit sector is no small feat.
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Environmental and Political Impacts of EV Batteries
To encourage the industry’s shift to all-electric, President Biden has outlined a $3 billion plan to invest in the production of electric vehicle batteries in the United States. What does this ultimately mean for the environment, for mining operations in the United States and abroad, and for battery research and development itself? Biden’s move comes at a time when fossil fuel prices are skyrocketing, but the move toward all-electric cars and more battery storage on the energy grid comes with its own complications — political and environmental.
For starters, there is a stark disconnect between current global plans to address climate change and the availability of critical mineral resources needed to achieve these ambitions. According to data from the International Energy Agency (IEA), an electric car requires 6 times the amount of minerals needed for a conventional vehicle. These rare earth minerals and metals used in every battery are concentrated in a few places around the world – currently, about 80% of US imports of lithium-ion batteries come from China.
In turn, China has contracted mining operations set up in many mineral-rich regions of the global south. China also processes and refines 80% of the rare earth metals the United States imports, which means that without identifying other means of extraction and processing, resource policy is a complex issue, and more than 6 times the current supply is needed to meet demand for decades to come.
Lithium demand is expected to far exceed supply by 2040 unless new sources of vital materials are tapped.
The EV battery life cycle begins with mining. Common environmental side effects of lithium mining include loss of water, soil destabilization, loss of biodiversity, increased salinity in nearby rivers, contaminated soils, and toxic waste. Measures to expand battery production carry less of a threat than continuing to burn fossil fuels, but that does not mean that the risk of damaging species and habitats is always present.
Lithium operations have already reduced populations of two species of flamingos in the salt pans of Chile, and a proposed site could wipe out most of the known range of a rare wildflower called Tiehm’s buckwheat. The mining boom also threatens the water supply of local communities and creates precariousness for indigenous communities. Electric vehicle battery materials have also sparked interest in seabed mining, a process that could endanger the sensitive ecosystems there.
As for 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 Congo – notes that the food provided to the miners is of poor quality, and they are provided with little more than a liter of water for a day’s work in the sweltering mines.
The DRC produces around 70% of the world’s cobalt supply, and watchdog groups have been sounding the alarm about unsafe working conditions and the use of child labor in artisanal mining operations for years. These accounts by employees and others of poor conditions and insufficient wages are a harbinger of the exploitation and extraction rooted deep in the supply chain that is fueling the electric vehicle boom.
It’s also worth noting that while Biden invoked a Cold War-era law in late March 2022 to boost domestic mineral and metal extraction, his plan does not provide funding for new ones. mining projects. On the contrary, it allocates funds to stimulate the processing and recovery in the United States of raw materials for the production of batteries.
According to the IEA report, the demand for graphite is expected to increase 25 times over the next 20 years, while the demand for lithium will increase by a factor of 70. Recycling is one of the ways to ease the burden extraction of new materials. No one recycling method will solve all scarcity issues, but the end-of-life (EOL) conditions of EV batteries certainly require careful attention as EV production increases.
Reduce, reuse, recycle
Electric vehicles are a harsh environment for batteries: lithium-ion batteries degrade significantly over life cycles. The degradation begins from the first discharge and charge cycle, eventually reaching conditions such that they can no longer provide satisfactory performance in high-volume vehicles.
By the late 2010s, between 200,000 and 500,000 electric vehicle batteries were retired in the United States each year. By 2025, annual EOL batteries could be closer to 1 million units, and that number could reach 2 million by 2040.
There are five main pathways – excluding reduction, which is expected – for dead EV batteries, all with their own risks and benefits. Sustainability requires innovations in recycling technology, even if the process is expensive and dangerous.
(Source: MIT, published in Cell Reports Physical Science)
Of the five disposal options for these batteries – reuse, restoration, recycling, incineration and disposal – all but reuse mean the end of the battery’s full life as well as the end of its automotive life. . Disposal is the least energy efficient, but may be necessary to avoid exposing workers to electrolyte release and hazardous chemical leaching. However, improper disposal can also lead to soil and groundwater contamination.
Incineration refers to the use of 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 cathode materials are restored for battery manufacturing without any further treatment. Reuse opens several ways in which a used battery can be reconditioned or directly reused either in another vehicle or for different applications. Recycling and reusing are ways to give batteries a second life, although reusing requires less processing.
Recycling is perhaps the most studied of the five options and offers a number of pathways for end-of-life electric vehicle batteries, as it is stimulated and supported by policies in many countries. It’s also an arduous and dangerous process of pulling apart the battery to extract the metals inside – and even just transporting and storing batteries of around 960 pounds can be dangerous.
The second lives that reuse and recycling provide vary widely: Audi has partnered with German-Indian startup Nunam to reuse batteries from test vehicles as batteries for electric rickshaws. Batteries have been repurposed to power transit buses or as renewable energy sources for homes and businesses.
The influx of EOL batteries as adoption of electric vehicles accelerates has also spawned companies dedicated to safe and sustainable recycling. Call2Recycle is an Atlanta-based organization that aims to create a closed loop between producers, consumers, and recyclers to facilitate the transfer of dead e-mobility batteries into the hands of those equipped to recycle them.
Call2Recycle CEO Leo Raudys in an interview with electrek said he hopes continued investment in a circular economy and efforts to keep the recycling process entirely national can result in a supply chain fully sustainable. There are so many obstacles and complications to developing a sustainable transit sector, but there is also hope.
It seems to me that electric vehicles are not the perfect solution to global energy and climate problems. It’s a noble step in the right direction, but it leaves a trail of destruction. My solution, currently, is simple: I drive less.
This article was originally published on EE time.
Cabe Atwell is an electrical engineer living in the Chicago area.