Batteries are the environmental Achilles heel of electric vehicles – unless…

Batteries and the environment

Authors

  • Mehdi Seyedmahmoudian Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering, Swinburne University of Technology
  • Alex Stojcevski Dean of School of Science, Computing and Engineering Technologies, Swinburne University of Technology
  • Saad Mekhilef Distinguished Professor in Electrical Renewable Energy, Swinburne University of Technology

Disclosure statement

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Partners

Swinburne University of Technology provides funding as a member of The Conversation AU.

Electric vehicle advocates say the cars ultimately have a smaller carbon footprint than their fossil-fuelled counterparts and could resolve our energy concerns for good. Well, fair enough, but questions arise when we dig into the inner layers of electrical vehicles and see how sustainable their components are. In fact, the batteries that power electric vehicles may also be their Achilles heel.

Batteries are the most expensive component of an electric vehicle. If the battery pack is damaged, defective or simply old, this can lead to the vehicle being written off prematurely. Tesla is even producing “structural” battery packs described as having “zero repairability”.

Increasingly scarce and valuable resources, such as lithium and water, are needed to make these batteries. Despite this, they are often not designed for ease of repair, reuse or recycling. This has significant environmental impacts, ranging from the mining for materials and the water and energy used in making new batteries and vehicles, through to the hazardous waste from discarded batteries.

In other words, the answer to the question of “Are electric vehicles really eco-friendly?” largely depends on how we manage the downsides associated with their batteries. Changes in how we design, produce, use and recycle electric car batteries are urgently needed. These changes can ensure that, in solving the problem of fossil fuel emissions, we also minimise other environmental harms.

Tackle the problems before they get too big

It’s important to resolve these issues now, while electric vehicles make up a small fraction of the global vehicle fleet. Even in world-leading Norway, only 20% of cars on the road are electric. In Australia, fewer than 100,000 out of 20 million registered vehicles are battery-powered.

batteries, environmental, achilles, heel, electric, vehicles

Yet already we are wrestling with the emerging concerns about their batteries. The performance of lithium batteries in an electric vehicle can degrade to 70-80% of its full capacity within six to ten years, depending on the owner’s driving routine. At that point, the battery is barely reliable as the main energy source of the vehicle. Repeated fast charging can degrade a battery sooner.

Globally, about 525,000 batteries will reach the end of their useful life for powering a vehicle by 2025. That number soars to over 1 million by 2030.

There’s life after EVs for batteries

However, the total lifetime of lithium batteries is 20 years. This means the end of a battery’s usefulness in a vehicle doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be discarded. These retired batteries can have plenty of other uses.

So how much capacity does a retired battery still have? As an example, an energy storage made of five repurposed Chevrolet Volt batteries can meet two hours of peak-use energy demand for five houses. The numbers become even more appealing for Tesla Model 3 batteries, which have three times the energy capacity of the Chevrolet Volt’s.

That is a tremendous capacity still available in a retired battery. So why not use that?

And once the battery has reached the end of its useful life, most of the raw materials used to make it can be recovered. It is possible to extract over 95% of the valuable metals like lithium, nickel, cobalt and copper. The European Union already requires electric vehicle batteries to be at least 50% recyclable by weight, increasing to 65% by 2025.

However, the current lack of standardisation of battery packs presents a challenge for battery recycling. There are many different physical configurations, cell types and cell chemistries.

Reuse has a long value chain

The good news is that battery reuse is not a fictional utopia. Carmaker Nissan is already doing it on Koshikishima, an island in south-western Japan. Batteries are recovered from electric vehicles, have their health assessed and then allocated to suitable second-life applications.

These batteries can be reused in a solar farm, as an emergency household power supply, or for an electric forklift in a warehouse. Research shows this repurposing of batteries can get another 10-15 years’ use out of them. That’s a huge leap towards reducing their environmental impact.

So, who benefits from this scheme? Well, there’s a long list.

In the first row, electric vehicles owners benefit immediately if their used batteries can be sold for a good price.

In the longer run, the list of beneficiaries expands massively. Households can enjoy more reliable and cheaper energy simply by charging up their battery storage during off-peak hours for use at peak times when electricity costs are higher. As an initiative in Portugal showed, using repurposed electric vehicle batteries in this way could cut energy bills by 40%.

Reusing batteries is good news for the environment. Research suggests reducing the demand for new batteries in this way could cut greenhouse gas emissions from making batteries by as much as 56%.

The long list of benefits of giving electric vehicle batteries a second life, then recycling their materials, is enticing. Given the scale of the potential economic and environmental gains, along with the countless jobs such work can create, batteries could be more generous in their afterlife than in their first incarnation in electric vehicles.

  • Electric vehicles
  • Mining
  • Recycling
  • battery life
  • Lithium-ion batteries
  • Battery metals
  • Repair and reuse
  • Better Cities
  • Battery electric vehicles
  • Batteries for electric vehicles
  • EV batteries

Carbon Footprint of Lithium-Ion Battery Production (vs Gasoline, Lead-Acid)

The carbon footprint of lithium-ion battery production poses significant harm to the environment.

This environmental impact begins from the phase of lithium mining and continues well into the manufacturing process for these batteries.

Due to their effects on the environment, it is important that you learn about the carbon footprint of the lithium-ion batteries used in your electric vehicle (EV), phone, and tablet.

This helps you understand the environmental damage that you might be contributing to, and how you can erase those emissions using a family earth defenders carbon offset.

To assist you through this learning curve, this complete guide explains the carbon footprint of lithium-ion batteries in terms of their mining and production, as well as their comparison vs gasoline and lead-acid batteries.

The Carbon Footprint of Lithium-Ion Battery Production: Environmental Impact of Lithium Mining

Many people wonder about the carbon footprint of electric cars vs gasoline, and because of the footprint of the batteries used and the fossil fuels burned to generate electricity, the difference to the planet is negligible.

Lithium is a natural metal that is mined from the Earth. Precisely, modern mining methods for lithium consist of sourcing it from saltwater lakes, underground water, as well as underground clay or ores.

Once brine (saltwater) is extracted from lakes or groundwater storage (GSW) reservoirs, it is kept under sunlight for the water to slowly evaporate. This leaves dried natural salts as well as lithium particles behind.

This process can take at least a year. While efforts have been made to mine lithium from seawater, they have not been successful due to significantly high costs. 1

On the other hand, extracting underground clay or ores requires the mined elements to go through a detailed refinement process. In order to extract these elements from the earth, mines are built across lithium-rich areas. 2

Apart from its medicinal properties, lithium is utilized to manufacture lithium-ion batteries that are used in a variety of applications including consumer electronics and EVs. While these applications power communication devices and modern methods of transport, the environmental impact of lithium-ion batteries cannot be denied.

No matter which of the current mining processes are used for lithium, the Earth’s natural resources, flora and fauna, get affected during it.

This happens due to the production of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) that get released into the environment during the lithium mining process. This makes the environmental impact of lithium mining to be quite significant. 3

The production of these batteries as well as their supply chain management contributes to this impact even further.

Once lithium-ion batteries have served their purpose, their disposal poses yet another challenge for the planet’s environment. This creates a direct connection between lithium-ion batteries and climate change.

Since almost everyone who uses modern devices now benefits from lithium-ion batteries in some shape or form, it is crucial for you to learn about the carbon footprint of lithium-ion batteries’ production and manufacturing processes.

This information not only helps you understand the impact that your cell phone, tablet, and EV is having on the environment but also lets you take proper measures to mitigate the involved risks to the planet.

Apart from assimilating the environmental impact of lithium-ion batteries vs gasoline and lead-acid batteries, it also allows you to know more about the societal, ecological, and geological harm that the practice brings to the table.

From there, it becomes easier for you to use tools such as a carbon calculator. You can also use a more specific tool like a car calculator which will help you determine how much carbon emissions your car releases whenever in use.

The tools will help you understand the effects that this seemingly clean source of power is having on Earth and its many inhabitants.

Along With the Carbon Footprint of Lithium Mining: Slavery and a Devastating Legacy Refers to the Social Impact of Lithium-Ion Batteries

Reading the phrase ‘lithium mining slavery’ might shock you at first. But the fact remains that the manufacturing of lithium-ion batteries has led to the occurrence of modern-day slavery.

This brutal affliction is not limited to adults but also impacts children who do not even know what is happening to them.

In Congo, children at age four are often put to work as slaves to extract cobalt, 4 which is a crucial element in lithium-ion batteries.

At first, these children are tasked with spotting and picking any rocks that may have cobalt in them. From there, they carry out activities such as taking gathered rocks to distributors or even washing the ores that are extracted from the Earth.

Years pass by, and these children turn into adults and continue to find cobalt for the manufacturing of lithium-ion batteries.

In the same way that their parents accepted the forced norm of putting their children to work, these children-turned-adults continue that cycle. In turn, it leads to a never-ending loop of cobalt and lithium mining slavery that is inflicted upon them by external sources.

These accounts regarding the social impact of lithium-ion batteries have been confirmed by organizations such as Amnesty International. 5

While a lawsuit against Big Tech companies including Apple and Tesla was filed in the U.S. on behalf of the children and families affected by these practices, it was dismissed in November 2021 due to the involvement of third parties in the supply chain management. 6

This also shows that in addition to the carbon footprint of lithium-ion battery production, the practice also has a gruesome social impact on actual people as well as their present and future. 7 This calls for an immediate restructuring of the way that lithium and other elements are mined for manufacturing lithium-ion batteries.

The Environmental Impact of Battery Production and Disposal: Key Battery Pollution Statistics

The environmental impact of lithium-ion batteries mostly comes from how the element is mined and distributed for the manufacturing processes of these batteries, but also in the disposal, which can leech dangerous chemicals into ground water. Whereas, the environmental impact of the production process depends upon the type of fuels being used to power the manufacturing equipment.

This involves the following practices as well as their related effects on the environment.

Lithium Mining Water Usage

In order to extract lithium from reservoirs of brine, a huge amount of saltwater is pumped out of the Earth.

According to estimates, mining a metric ton of lithium requires around 2 million liters of brine or saltwater from the ground. 8 This makes lithium mining water use a huge problem.

The overpumping of groundwater reservoirs surpasses the rate at which these reservoirs can replenish. 9 GWS is essential to survival in areas where surface water supply is not available.

Since climate change directly affects the water cycle, 10 this overpumping of GWS takes away a natural resource that is essential to life and also adds to CO2 levels in the environment.

Land Usage: How Bad Is Lithium Mining

In its natural form, open land is home to plants, trees, and forests. When we overtake a part of the land and lead to land-use change, 11 it has an effect on natural forestry.

When trees get eliminated, Earth loses a major source of carbon sequestration which results in more CO2 being released into the Earth’s environment. 12

Chile, which tops the list of countries with the world’s largest lithium reserves, 13 lost around 56.8 kilo hectares of its natural forest in 2021 alone. This translates to 28.5 metric tons of CO2 equivalents (CO2-eq) in emissions. 14

The second in the list of lithium mining countries is Australia, which lost 231 kilo hectares of its natural forest by 2021, leading to over 90.5 metric tons of CO2-eq in emissions. 15

While it is easy to understand how bad is lithium mining and what leads to its battery pollution statistics, not all of this loss of forests occurred from lithium mining alone. But as lithium mining continues to contribute to land-use changes, these negative effects of deforestation would continue to plague these countries as well as the world with them.

Toxic Waste

The toxic waste that is produced from manufacturing lithium-ion batteries mainly stems from metals including cobalt and manganese. When these metals are disposed of into water, they turn drinking water and healthy land toxic. 16

This depletes the Earth’s natural resources such as water reservoirs and natural forests. In turn, this has a huge impact on the communities that live nearby areas where lithium-ion batteries are disposed of.

This also contributes to CO2 levels in the environment. Due to this reason, it is essential that proper measures are taken for lithium-ion battery recycling.

Fossil Fuel Usage

When comparing lithium mining vs fossil fuels, lithium-ion batteries can store more power and have a lengthy life cycle, which makes them a good choice for those who want to emit less CO2 through their energy use to power their devices and cars. However, their production is often reliant on fossil fuels such as coal, which adds to their overall carbon footprint.

It also needs to be noted that most of the lithium-ion batteries in the world are produced in China, which has a carbon footprint that exceeds all developed nations put together. 17 This is mainly because China relies on coal as an energy source, which is a fossil fuel that has a high carbon footprint. 18

As a result, when lithium-ion batteries are made in China, they leave a significant carbon footprint in their wake.

The Life Cycle Energy Consumption and Greenhouse Gas Emissions From Lithium-Ion Batteries

The life cycle energy consumption of lithium-ion batteries differs due to a variety of factors. These include but are not limited to the following.

  • Battery materials: This refers to the elements such as cobalt that are used to make the battery.
  • Battery design: This speaks to the battery size and its overall product design to store the needed energy.
  • Battery modeling: This outlines the way that the battery is modeled for specific applications.
  • Battery manufacture: This highlights the overall manufacturing practices used to produce the battery.

Out of all of these factors, some studies suggest that the largest emissions in a lithium-ion battery’s life cycle occur during its manufacturing process and go as high as 50 percent of its total emissions. But many studies have not been able to get a precise estimate of the carbon footprint of lithium-ion battery production. 19

Instead, these estimates provide you with a wide range of possible emissions that are measured in CO2-eq.

While this makes it difficult to pinpoint the amount of CO2-eq that is produced during the life cycle of a lithium-ion battery, understanding the life cycle energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions from lithium-ion batteries does give you some idea about the impact of batteries on the environment. 20

Analysis of the Climate Impact of Lithium-Ion Batteries and How To Measure It

The analysis of the climate impact of lithium-ion batteries and how to measure it has been a fiery question for a variety of environmentalists. But along with the lack of studies, the different methods to calculate the environmental effect of lithium-ion batteries makes it difficult to reach clear figures.

For instance, the lithium-ion battery manufacturing process is said to have a 50 percent carbon footprint out of the entire life cycle of the battery. 18

But if earlier components of the process such as refining the materials and grading the battery are combined, they have the same carbon footprint of total emissions from the battery. This creates different ranges to determine the harmful effects of batteries on the environment.

These processes make it difficult for environmentalists and data scientists to perform an analysis of the climate impact of lithium-ion batteries and how to measure it.

With that being said, different ranges are still available that can help you get an idea of how much the lithium-ion battery in your shiny new device or EV is harming the environment.

CO2 Emissions: Lithium-Ion Battery Production and Usage Calculator vs Lead-Acid and Gasoline

Before you move forward with tracking down the emissions from the production of lithium-ion batteries vs gasoline and lead-acid batteries, it is important to understand the metrics used in these estimates.

Carbon Footprint of Lithium-Ion Battery Production

Since there is no precise way to determine the actual emissions of the production of a lithium-ion battery, the following calculations use the upper and lower ranges of CO2-eq emissions from lithium-ion battery production.

Modern EVs have a lithium-ion battery capacity of around 30 kWh – 200 kWh. This figure refers to the hours that the EV can run on a consistent basis after a full charge.

For instance, a 30 kWh battery can keep a vehicle running for approximately 30 hours which means mileage from this runtime itself depends on a number of factors and varies according to the vehicle type and model.

With this in mind, here is a calculator outlining different capacities for lithium-ion battery technology, 21 as well as their estimates for low, medium, and high range CO2-eq emissions. 19,20

Battery Capacity Low Range Medium Range High Range
General – 1 kWh 40 kilogram of CO2-eq 150 kilogram of CO2-eq 200 kilogram of CO2-eq
EV – 30 kWh 1.2 metric ton of CO2-eq 4.5 metric tons of CO2-eq 6 metric tons of CO2-eq
EV – 60 kWh 2.4 metric tons of CO2-eq 9 metric tons of CO2-eq 12 metric tons of CO2-eq
EV – 80 kWh 3.2 metric tons of CO2-eq 10.2 metric tons of CO2-eq 16 metric tons of CO2-eq
EV – 160 kWh 6.4 metric tons of CO2-eq 24 metric tons of CO2-eq 32 metric tons of CO2-eq
EV – 200 kWh 8 metric tons of CO2-eq 30 metric tons of CO2-eq 40 metric tons of CO2-eq

On the other hand, the carbon footprint of lithium-ion battery for manufacturing cell phones and tablets is much lower. You can determine this by dividing the battery’s CO2-eq by milliampere-hour (mAH). 22

On an average basis, modern mobile devices have a CO2-eq of 14 mg per mAh which means that if your smartphone has a 4000mAh battery, it would have an estimated CO2-eq of 56 kg. 23

However, these estimates are not set in stone and only give you a range of what to expect from the carbon footprint of lithium-ion battery production. With that being said, they do provide you with a general idea of what it took for the environment for you to have your EVs and mobile devices.

What Is the Carbon Footprint of a Lithium-Ion Battery Compared to Carbon Footprint of Car Battery and Carbon Footprint of Lead-Acid Battery and Gasoline?

Lead-acid batteries are quite affordable to produce, which makes them a highly economical source of energy around the world.

But as compared to a lithium-ion battery that has a longer life cycle and no tailpipe emissions, the usage of a lead-acid battery in a gasoline-powered vehicle can produce 13.5 times higher carbon footprint. 24 This makes the carbon footprint of lead-acid battery worse than a lithium-ion battery for the environment.

On the other hand, where an EV has no tailpipe emissions, a gasoline vehicle with any type of battery emits CO2.

This means that after an EV has been manufactured, its carbon emissions depend upon the type of energy that is being used to charge it. Whereas, a gasoline vehicle will emit CO2 for every minute that it drives on the road.

Looking further into the environmental impact of emerging electric vehicle technology, the carbon emissions of an EV also depend upon the region that it is being driven in and the type of energy that is used in that specific area. But for a gasoline vehicle, tailpipe and CO2 emissions are a given, regardless of which part of the world it is driving in.

As an example, a 2022 Tesla Model X in New York City has a carbon emission of 110g/Mi. 25 But if you estimate the usage of the same car across the U.S. where mixed electricity is the main source of power, its carbon emission rises to 140g/Mi.

batteries, environmental, achilles, heel, electric, vehicles

On the other hand, a new gasoline vehicle on average would create total emissions of 410g/Mi. You can also perform these calculations for different EVs by using this calculator for the carbon footprint of electric cars vs gasoline and if you rent cars whenever you travel you can look at the different methods for carbon offset car rental.

In turn, even after causing significant environmental impact during its manufacturing process, the overall emissions for a lithium-ion battery and the vehicle that it powers remain more environmentally friendly.

This means that we should be working on reducing the harm that is caused to the environment during lithium-ion battery production instead of reverting to gasoline vehicles that are powered by lead-acid batteries.

This can lead to a future of lithium mining that is significantly more considerate of the planet and its inhabitants.

Mitigating the Hazards of Lithium Mining and the Harmful Effects of Batteries on the Environment

Instead of using practices that excessively utilize the natural resources of the planet which add to its CO2 emissions, certain measures can mitigate the biggest hazards of lithium mining. 25 This refers to the following changes to reduce the environmental impact of battery production and disposal.

Providing Proper Resources to Lithium Mining Countries

Lithium mining countries such as Chile suffer from deforestation and excessive usage of water, which adds to the carbon footprint of lithium mining.

On the other hand, countries such as Australia use energy-intensive processes to extract lithium from ores, which also contributes to carbon emissions that are otherwise avoidable. 26

By participating in carbon offsets purchase programs, promoting research into using seawater for lithium extraction, and looking into projects that extract lithium from geothermal waters, 26 lithium mining companies can reduce the CO2 emissions lithium-ion battery production brings to the table.

Related Reading : Car Rental Carbon Offsets Calculator: Get Your Precise Offset for any Rental Company

Shallow Cycling of Batteries

A longer life cycle for a lithium-ion battery translates to a lesser impact on the environment. This means that if the battery can store more energy and power its device for an extensive period of time, its overall CO2 emissions would reduce in the long run.

In turn, you not only benefit from devices and EVs that can run for longer but also become more environmentally friendly by cutting down battery manufacturing energy consumption.

According to research, shallow cycling lithium-ion batteries at a 50 percent charge can lead to longer battery life. 27 This fulfills the goals mentioned above and allows you to utilize more power from your battery against every purchase.

Reduced production of new batteries can then help in curbing the environmental impact of lithium mining and battery production.

Ensuring Proper Disposal of Batteries

The toxic waste that escapes into water streams through the inefficient disposal of lithium-ion batteries has a significant impact on the environment.

In addition to reducing water resources for human consumption, it also contributes to affecting the lives of flora and fauna.

By looking into proper disposal of batteries, you can safely dispose of your lithium-ion batteries through recycling programs or designated points of waste collection.

On the other hand, industrial stakeholders can also pay more attention to these practices and ensure that they are not contributing to the CO2 emissions lithium-ion battery production brings to the surface in the first place.

Using Clean Energy To Power Zero-Emission Cars

Once a lithium-ion battery is produced and used in an EV, it doesn’t have any tailpipe emissions. Instead, its carbon emissions come from the type of energy that it is used to power or charge.

This means that if you use clean energy to charge your vehicle, your electric car battery pollution poses little to no threat to the environment. Due to this reason, it is important that you opt for clean energy options whenever possible.

As an individual, you can also talk to your local government representatives to push for renewable energy initiatives. When you power your vehicle using these resources, it can cut down the total emissions of your EV and the environmental impact of batteries.

Envisioning a Better Future of Lithium Mining: Water Use, Land Use, and Sustainability

By reducing water and land use as well as promoting the use of sustainable practices, the bad/harmful effects of batteries can be mitigated to a significant extent. This ensures you can use your modern devices and zero-emission cars without a neverending burden on your conscience.

Lithium-Ion Batteries Are Important for the Environment?

Environmental awareness is crucial, and if we all work together, we can undoubtedly do more in terms of preserving our environment. Finding any carbon offset organizations or getting involved in the planting of carbon offset trees can make a significant difference in the fight against climate change.

Even when a lithium-ion battery poses significant carbon emissions during its mining and manufacturing, it is still better than gasoline and lead-acid batteries that continue to harm the environment during their usage.

Keeping this in mind, we can focus on reducing the carbon footprint of lithium-ion battery production through carbon offset planning and other environmentally friendly measures.

With the Increase of Electric Car Battery Pollution, What Are the Environmental Impacts of Lithium-Ion Batteries in Electric Vehicles?

The environmental impacts of lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles include water usage, land-use change, ecological modifications, and greenhouse gas emissions.

If You Compare Lithium Mining vs Fossil Fuels, What Is the Environmental Impact of Batteries vs Non-Renewable Energy?

While the hazards of lithium mining can cause significant harm to the environment during its production, it is still more environmentally friendly than fossil fuels. The highest CO2 generated from lithium-ion battery manufacturing comes from the production process, a majority of which is powered by the burning of fossil fuels. 20

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Charging Phone?

The carbon footprint of charging phone depends upon the type of electricity that you are using. For instance, if you are using renewable energy, you would cause little to no greenhouse gas emissions.

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Car Battery?

The carbon footprint of car battery depends upon the type of battery that you are using. The majority of CO2-eq emissions are caused during the manufacturing process of the battery itself. 20

How Much Fuel Is Used To Mine Lithium?

There is no set number to determine how much fuel is used to mine lithium. With that being said, even when lithium mining creates carbon emissions through the use of diesel fuel for mining equipment, the lithium-ion batteries that are produced through this process emit less greenhouse gas emissions than any other type of battery in the market. 20

What Are the Bad/Harmful Effects of Batteries and How Do Batteries and Climate Change Relate to One Another?

Modern battery manufacturing practices involve activities such as mining for minerals from the Earth which leads to GHG emissions through water usage and land-use change. When batteries are manufactured, the process can also contribute to more GHG emissions by burning fossil fuels. 20

What Is the Environmental Impact of Lithium-Ion Batteries vs the Carbon Footprint of AA Battery?

The environmental impact of lithium-ion batteries comes from the process of mining materials and the production of fossil fuels during their manufacturing activities. Typically, this ranges from 40-200 kg per kWh while the carbon footprint of an AA battery is approximately 0.107 kilogram of CO2-eq for each AA battery. 35

What Is the Environmental Impact of Emerging Electric Vehicle Technology?

The environmental impact of emerging electric vehicle technology mainly depends on how lithium-ion batteries are produced and what type of energy is used to charge these vehicles afterward. This can lead to deforestation and water consumption for mining lithium, and the creation of even more greenhouse gases during the battery manufacturing process but if EV owners use renewable energy, it cuts down their carbon emissions to a minimal level.

If You Evaluate the Environmental Impact of Lithium Mining vs Oil, Is Lithium Mining Worse Than Oil Drilling?

Lithium mining does have an environmental impact, but it is no worse than oil drilling. This is especially true when you consider the carbon emissions produced from petroleum products during their usage, as compared to lithium-ion batteries that have little to no GHG emissions during their use. 25

Is Lithium Mining Worse Than Coal Mining?

While lithium mining has negative effects on the environment, the lithium that is extracted during the process makes for long-lasting batteries that can help reduce our GHG emissions. On the other hand, coal mining not only creates GHG emissions during the mining process but also contributes to GHG emissions when the coal is utilized or burned, leading to the production of CO2.

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batteries, environmental, achilles, heel, electric, vehicles

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Environmental Impact Of Battery Production And Disposal

Batteries are essential for many of our daily-use gadgets, powering our portable devices like phones, toys, handheld power tools, and headphones. On a bigger scale, batteries have a crucial place in the energy and transport sector.

Many car manufacturers have switched to making electric vehicles with growing environmental concerns regarding fossil fuel use. The burning of fossil fuels to power products like vehicles is already known for contributing to pollution and climate change.

However, researchers are shining a light on battery manufacturing and its carbon footprint. How much of an impact does the global batteries market have on the environment? In this article, we’ll explore the life cycle of batteries by examining battery manufacturing and waste battery disposal.

Battery Usage in Today’s World

The use of batteries in the power and automobile industries globally is changing how we use and dispose of batteries. From batteries that power little devices to lithium-ion battery packs within electric vehicles, the industry continues to seek smaller and longer-lasting batteries while volume increases.

The electric transportation sector has been growing with ongoing conversations about ways to reduce the global carbon footprint. On the one hand, there’s no denying the concerns around the burning of fossil fuels. This has raised the need to switch to newer systems that Champion electric cars.

However, we’re now seeing greater discussions about the true environmental costs of electric cars. Specifically, the world is focusing more on electric car batteries, considering the impact battery manufacturers have on the environment and how disposal methods can be anything but environmentally friendly.

Many systems have been making changes to reduce burning fossil fuels and shift towards renewable energy sources. With the effect of greenhouse gas emissions on the planet, it has become more important than ever to examine the life cycle of products.

Battery-powered electric vehicles ubiquitous electronic devices

On the one hand, we can see leading car manufacturers making a switch to electric vehicles as an alternative to gasoline-powered vehicles. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, 95% of our world’s transport energy comes from petroleum-based fuels 6.

Electric vehicles, which run on lithium-ion batteries, play their role in reducing pollution on the roads. As a result, electric car batteries do help us reduce our environmental impact to an extent. Within the global market, there has also been a surge in demand for electric vehicles. As a result, this demand leads to an increase in the production of electric batteries along with a growing amount of spent lithium-ion batteries.

Apart from zooming in on the electric car, we must also explore the widespread consumption of electronic devices. Many items within the home and outside are powered by one battery pack or the other.

Growing battery demand translates into a growing environmental impact

As a result, researchers note growing worries about the ecological and environmental effects of spent batteries. Studies revealed a compound annual growth rate of up to 8% in 2018. The number is expected to reach between 18 and 30% by 2030 3.

The need to increase production comes with the growing demand for new products and electronics. This is where concerns about the carbon footprint of batteries and battery-powered devices come into play. Although it’s easy to praise batteries produced with energy storage in mind, there’s much more to consider across their lifecycle other than emission reductions when they power our EVs.

When there’s a lack of regulation around manufacturing methods and waste management, battery production hurts the planet in many ways. From the mining of materials like lithium to the conversion process, improper processing and disposal of batteries lead to contamination of the air, soil, and water. Also, the toxic nature of batteries poses a direct threat to aquatic organisms and human health as well.

While examining the environmental impact of batteries, we also need to note the demand for specific types. Today, the lithium-ion battery or Li-ion battery is the most common type of rechargeable battery. Manufacturers use lithium-ion batteries in computers, phones, and of course, electric cars. Consequently, this shoots up lithium demand.

Lithium-Ion Batteries

The lithium-ion battery, or li-ion battery, is a common and frequently used battery type in our day-to-day lives. Manufacturers largely use li-ion batteries in consumer electronics and computers. Li-ion batteries are electric batteries or a type of rechargeable batteries that we can use over and over again.

These types of batteries also provide a high energy density. Manufacturers turn to them for their high-power output per kilogram when compared to other electric batteries. A Li-ion battery stores about 150 watt-hours per kg 5.

Apart from their role in keeping our electronic devices alive, they are also important to the electric vehicle industry. Many electric car batteries, or EV batteries, rely on this battery type.

Within these batteries, lithium ions move from anode to cathode. This process releases energy from the battery to the device. It goes through this cycle in reverse during the recharging period. However, the cycle of discharging and charging slowly reduces the battery’s capacity over time.

Naturally, the number of natural resources and battery materials producers need for small devices differs significantly from a car battery. There’s a greater need for energy storage in EV batteries. As a result, manufacturers need to incorporate raw materials like nickel, cobalt, and graphite. These require extraction methods that place a toll on the environment in addition to lithium production.

Other Popular Battery Types

Apart from li-ion batteries, the world uses a host of other battery types. Some other popular ones include:

Lithium Batteries

Not to be confused with li-ion batteries, lithium batteries are a type of non-rechargeable battery. The lithium battery possesses primary cell construction and offers high energy densities. These battery types come in AA, AAA, and 9V sizes. Producers use lithium batteries in both small and large electronic devices. They are great for portable devices due to their lightweight nature.

Lead Acid Batteries

The lead acid battery is an older battery technology that people explored for its durability, efficiency, and low costs. This type of battery works for many battery power applications.

One of their most popular uses is in conventional automotive vehicles, where the large surge and current capacity make them ideal for starting internal combustion engines. Today, lithium battery production has been replacing the lead acid variants. However, manufacturers continue to use lead-acid batteries in various applications, from automobiles and motorcycles to backup power systems.

Are Batteries Bad for the Environment?

Battery Production and the Environmental Impact of Battery Manufacturing

Today, many of our electronics and electric cars rely on lithium, an alkali metal. It’s almost impossible not to own products that rely on lithium batteries.

On the one hand, there’s an economic advantage for countries that export this raw material. However, there’s also the environmental challenge energy-intensive lithium extraction and production pose.

Lithium-ion’s production process presents challenges to people and the planet. During production, lithium mining requires large amounts of water and energy. It also creates soil and air pollution problems that affect the climate and safety of our world.

In terms of direct human impact, there’s the ethical challenge of unsafe conditions within mines. In developing countries where producers extract these raw materials, there are cases of child labor where both children and adults face unsafe conditions.

With lithium production and consumption growing exponentially, it’s necessary to dive into the impact. Studies reveal a projected growth rate of US30 billion in 2017 to 100 billion in 2025 within the lithium-ion batteries market 4.

At the same time, according to a report by the Global Battery Alliance, a public-private partnership led by the World Economic Forum, batteries have the potential to enable 30% of reductions in greenhouse gas emissions within the transport and power sectors 1.

Environmental Effects Associated with the Production of Li-Ion Batteries

Similar to petroleum, we need to mine and extract materials like lithium from the earth to use them. As a result, the process of mining and extracting is the first point of contact when examining the effects of battery manufacturing. Apart from lithium, manufacturers use materials like cobalt and nickel when making batteries to extend their life cycle.

Manufacturing companies often need to source lithium deposits in faraway countries when seeking to extract lithium. Some of the largest deposits in the world reside in South America, Mexico, and East Asia.

About one-third of the world’s lithium comes from salt flats in Chile and Argentina. In these regions, miners mine the resource using huge quantities of water. Within the Andes mountains of South America, one of the challenges with extraction is water since the mountains are quite dry, and the extraction process requires water in large quantities. This enables the element to come to the surface in a salty brine.

You need lithium carbonate to create a battery. Lithium carbonate is a concentrated material that comes from using evaporation pools to refine lithium-containing salts. Workers leave pools of salty brine to evaporate until they can filter the solid salts. This evaporation period can take anywhere from 12 to 18 months. As a water-intensive method, this process uses about 500,000 gallons of water per tonne of lithium.

Apart from its intensive water use, refining lithium also requires using toxic chemicals like hydrochloric acid. Consequently, these chemicals can leach into community water supplies. These procedures affect local farmers, the community at large, and also aquatic bodies.

In regions like North America and Australia, miners use traditional methods to extract lithium from rocks. However, even this requires chemicals as well. The environmental cost is clear, from canals filled with contaminated water to chemicals in the soil.

With the great demand for lithium, it’s no surprise that manufacturers will want to hasten production. To cut the evaporation period of the brine short, factories can heat the water. However, this throws fossil fuels into the energy mix, thereby defeating the purpose.

Cobalt Mining

Cobalt constitutes a crucial part of a battery’s electrode. As a result, vehicle and electronics manufacturers also extract this raw material. Besides the adverse environmental effects of lithium extraction and production, cobalt mining is a destructive process.

It’s first important to know that around 70% of the world’s cobalt is in one country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Therefore, the world’s cobalt demand takes a toll on this region. Apart from environmental effects, there are also human consequences for the people within the region. Child and slave labor, unsafe working conditions, and high levels of congenital disabilities due to chemical exposure are rampant.

Unlike lithium, cobalt and nickel mining occurs underground. This process has various effects, from physically destroying habitats to chemicals polluting surrounding areas. Since cobalt plays an essential role in producing batteries, chemists are researching cleaner alternatives.

Battery Disposal

Battery disposal is another area of concern. When disposed of improperly, used battery components can cause toxic environmental challenges. Since these batteries contain potentially toxic elements, they can become an environmental disaster. In some cases, improper disposal can cause explosions.

The Effects of Battery Waste

Within the home, battery waste comprises solid waste that ends up in landfills. So, when you throw your batteries out, they most likely end up in a landfill. Here, they decay and leak. The battery corrodes, and its chemicals leak into the soil. Apart from this, they can enter surface and groundwater supplies, thereby contaminating them. Furthermore, these battery chemicals reach the oceans and threaten aquatic animals.

Apart from leaking chemicals, when exposed, lithium within batteries is volatile. Consequently, it can initiate landfill fires, thereby releasing even more harmful gases into the atmosphere.

From this, it’s easy to see how improper waste management, even on a small scale, can cause large-scale, long-term effects. These chemicals can affect the environment and pose a danger to human safety. Apart from batteries within the home, this also applies to disposing of electric vehicle batteries.

Disposing of Electric Vehicles Batteries

Unlike regular cars or batteries, EV batteries are heavier and larger. These batteries also contain several li-ion cells that require dismantling. If dismantled incorrectly, the hazardous materials have the potential to explode.

Using recycled materials has been praised as a solution. However, the process of recycling a li-ion battery is not as widespread as the conventional lead-acid battery.

Regardless, global organizations recognize the need to put standards in place. These standards seek to reduce the number of batteries manufacturers and brands dump or throw away. This calls for the need to reuse and recycle materials to support sustainable development. For instance, proposals from the European Union highlight the need for electric vehicle manufacturers to see to the proper management of their products.

Battery Recycling as a Solution

With tons of research and money going into recycling, it’s only normal for recycling to be a suggested solution. Rather than tossing out batteries into the trash, they can pass through the recycling process to serve a new life.

However, the recycling rate and process largely depend on the battery type. First, let’s explore the lead-acid battery. This battery is recycled globally. Studies also reveal a 99.3% battery recycling rate 7.

The best part is that every battery component is recyclable and reusable. That is, parts like lead, plastic, and sulfuric acid can play roles in producing new batteries. In terms of sustainability, this is a win. Recycling reduces the pressure on mining new lead, and it also reduces waste. Furthermore, it reduces the amount of lead in landfills.

Recycling li-ion is a different practice. Unlike lead-acid variants that recycling facilities can easily work with, this one is not as easy. Although recycling lithium-ion batteries is technically possible, it’s a more complicated process.

Lithium is barely ever recycled due to its complicated life cycle. Throughout their lifespan, these batteries go through irreversible damage. What this means is that it’s impossible to repurpose them simply. As a result, recyclers need to tear the battery apart and extract the lithium. Afterward, they can re-manufacture them.

During the manufacturing process, producers include a host of additives in the electrolyte liquid in the battery. These additives serve as a way to improve the li-ion battery in one way or another.

For instance, an additive can make the battery more durable in changing weather conditions. On the other hand, another additive could serve as a way to speed up the manufacturing process.

Due to the possibilities of various mixtures, it becomes hard to repurpose the metals within the battery. At the same, it makes it an expensive method.

To attempt recycling, companies must dismantle the components of waste batteries safely and correctly. One of the reasons for this is that the electrolyte mixture can quickly explode if exposed to high temperatures, which can quickly occur with improper handling. With all these factors at play, it’s easy to see how and why the lithium battery material recycling rate is relatively low.

Globally, at the moment, the percentage of these batteries that we recycle is not stable. However, estimates give a value of about just 5%. Further, automotive Li-ion batteries have only been used in vehicles on a large scale for around 5 years 2. and as such, a large amount has as yet to reach their end of life, justifying large-scale recycling.

Possible Solutions

In the case of electric cars, there’s no denying that they are a greener solution to petroleum-powered vehicles. However, as we’ve examined, the battery-making process isn’t free of environmental effects.

In this light, this calls for sector-wide improvements to achieve environmentally friendly battery production as much as possible. There’s a need to make the processes around battery making and disposal much greener and safer. This will not only positively impact the environment but also protect people’s health. Improvements in areas like battery technology can pave the way to making the process more environmentally friendly. Also, switching to renewable energy sources is a significant step.

Before recycling, another solution would be to use batteries for longer. Experts reveal that in electric cars, there’s still battery capacity at the end of first use in these vehicles. Although manufacturers can’t use them to power the cars anymore, they could have second lives. For instance, they could store excess energy generated by solar.

Conclusion

Batteries come in various forms and contain a host of materials. Regardless, these products often go through intensive extraction and manufacturing processes. Consequently, they negatively affect the environment and present health risks.

From small electronics to vehicles, batteries are everywhere. These products can help reduce carbon emissions in our world so long as improvements present cleaner processes.

Linda Gaines, The future of automotive lithium-ion battery recycling: Charting a sustainable course, Sustainable Materials and Technologies, Volumes 1–2, 2014, Pages 2-7, ISSN 2214-9937, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.susmat.2014.10.001.

Elda M. Melchor-Martínez, Rodrigo Macias-Garbett, Alonso Malacara-Becerra, Hafiz M.N. Iqbal, Juan Eduardo Sosa-Hernández, Roberto Parra-Saldívar, Environmental impact of emerging contaminants from battery waste: A mini review, Case Studies in Chemical and Environmental Engineering, Volume 3, 2021, 100104, ISSN 2666-0164, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cscee.2021.100104

J. Dixon, Energy storage for electric vehicles, 2010 IEEE International Conference on Industrial Technology, 2010, pp. 20-26, doi: 10.1109/ICIT.2010.5472647.

National Recycling Rate (pdf), Battery Council, SmithBucklin Statistics Group, Chicago, Illinois, November 2019

Promoting the Environmentally Sound Management of Waste Lead Acid Batteries (WLAB)

Approximately 86% of the total global consumption of lead is for the production of lead-acid batteries mainly used in motorized vehicles, storage of energy generated by photovoltaic cells and wind turbines, and for back-up power supplies (ILA, 2019). The increasing demand for motor vehicles as countries undergo economic development and growth in the use of renewable energy sources with the need for storage batteries is directly proportional to the increasing demand for lead-acid batteries (WHO, 2017). The batteries contain large amount of lead either as solid metal or lead-oxide powder. An average battery can contain up to 10 kilograms of lead. Recycled lead is a valuable commodity for many people in the developing world, making the recovery of car batteries [known as Waste Lead-Acid Batteries (WLAB) or Used Lead-Acid Batteries (ULAB)] a viable and profitable business which is practiced in both formal and informal sectors globally.

The main pathways of exposure to lead from recycling used lead acid batteries arise from environmental emissions, which occur at various stages in the improper recycling process. in many lower-income countries ULAB recycling and smelting operations are conducted in the open air, in densely populated urban areas, and often with few (if any) pollution controls. Inappropriate recycling operations release considerable amounts of lead particles and fumes emitted into the air, deposited onto soil, water bodies and other surfaces, with both environment and human health negative impacts.

Alternatives to Lead Acid Batteries

Lead-acid batteries are the most widely and commonly used rechargeable batteries in the automotive and industrial sector. Irrespective of the environmental challenges it poses, lead-acid batteries has remain ahead of its peers because of its cheap cost as compared to the expensive cost of Lithium ion and nickel cadmium batteries.

Furthermore, designing green and sustainable battery systems as alternatives to conventional means remains pertinent. However, factors such as life cycle, abundance of raw materials and electrode recycling must be taken into account as they pose their own pros and cons as can be seen in the document Alternatives to lead-acid batteries.

Pilot Project: Environmentally Sound Management of Used Lead-Acid Batteries in Bangladesh

Between 2020 and early 2021, UNEP undertook a pilot project in Bangladesh on recycling used lead-acid batteries (ULAB), aiming to establish the basis for environmentally sound management (ESM) of ULAB in the country through the provision of technical assistance and capacity-building activities. Lead exposure is a significant issue in Bangladesh: around 3.62% of the total number of death is attributable to lead exposure (IHME, 2019) and unsound ULAB recycling practices play a key role in the exposure. Indeed, more than 80% of the lead in the country is recycled through an informal network of ULAB recyclers, without consideration of the underlying health and environmental hazards. Bangladesh has more than 1,100 informal and illegal ULAB recycling operations across the country. These sites are believed to be a significant contributor to lead exposures across the country and the primary contributor to lead pollution hotspots. ULAB recycling is not fully addressed yet by the regulatory framework and the implementing measures in place.

To address this pressing issue, this project aims to establish the basis for the ESM of ULABs in Bangladesh through the provision of technical assistance and capacity-building activities on lead. The project’s main output is to assist in drafting a national strategy on the ESM of ULAB that lays out a clear set of goals and agreed strategies that government and civil society organizations can model their future programs on.

Different key documents focusing on diverse aspects of ULAB management in Bangladesh have been drafted as part of the project to provide inputs to the national strategy.

The project is implemented by the Environmental and Social Development Organization (ESDO), a Bengalese NGO, with contributions from Pure Earth, the International Lead Association (ILA) and UNEP.

Lead Acid Batteries Status. Needs Assessment Survey

In response to the above resolutions and plans to undertake capacity-building activities and strengthen institutional capacity to address these challenges, UNEP conducted a needs assessment survey.

A survey was developed and sent to 102 countries to ascertain countries status on used lead acid batteries, regulations in place, monitoring manufacturing, recycling and trade processes involved with used lead-acid batteries, as well as specific country needs to enhance and strengthen institutions to manage this issue in a more environmentally sustainable manner.

From the responses from completed surveys, results showed the following needs in regions:

  • Asia and the Pacific region expressed need for technical and capacity building as most required.
  • Latin American region expressed more needs for monitoring system, national strategy, technical and capacity building, legislation and regulation building.
  • Africa region expressed needs for monitoring system, public private partnership, technology, and legislation and regulation building.

Lead Acid Batteries Events

  • Updates on the Environmentally Sound Management of Used Lead Acid Batteries, Side event at BRS COPs 2019. May 2019
  • Lead-Acid Batteries, Activities at UNEA 4. March 2019
  • Regional Workshop on the Environmentally Sound Management of Used Lead Acid Batteries, Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. July 2017
  • Regional Workshop on the Environmentally Sound Management of Used Lead Acid Batteries, Guatemala City, Guatemala. February 2016
  • Workshop on Sound Management of Used Lead Acid Batteries, Osaka, Japan. November 2015

Further information

The Secretariat of the Basel Convention is also working on used lead-acid batteries. The following documents are available to download on their website:

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