Between 2000 and 2018, the number of manufactured lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) increased by 80. 2018 saw most of these utilized to power electric cars (EVs). The anticipated growth of electric vehicles will raise the demand for batteries. The International Energy Agency estimates that between the years 2019 and 2030, the need for batteries will increase 17 times.
This scenario raises numerous questions regarding the materials used to produce the batteries. What materials are used? Are there any environmental effects of removing them? Are they recyclable?
In examining the components used in LIBs currently being used in most 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 are different. The batteries used in phones or computers have cobalt, 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 has yet to be discovered since it is an industry secret. In addition, regular improvements are added to batteries to improve their efficiency, and their chemical composition changes as time passes. In any event, the principal materials used in producing LIBs are cobalt, lithium, nickel manganese, graphite, and cobalt. They have all been identified as posing environmental and supply risks.
The supply issue for the materials in question is a complicated one. On the other hand, the worth of reserves is influenced by geopolitical considerations and changes in extraction methods; on the other hand, material requirements are highly dependent on forecasts made in the future (the number of EVs and the size of batteries).
Which are their environmental consequences?
The issue of the environmental impact of battery manufacturing is possibly more significant. Although many materials are available, their use’s environmental impacts should be considered carefully.
Research has shown that the production of batteries has grave consequences on pollution to the ecosystem or human toxicity. Additionally, there is the necessity to observe working conditions in a few countries. In addition, studying environmental effects requires a thorough understanding of the batteries’ composition and manufacturing processes; however, these details are difficult to acquire because of apparent reasons relating to industrial properties.
Can recycling these materials offer solutions to reduce the risks and negative impacts?
Two main types of recycling battery processes can be utilized together or separately.
- Pyrometallurgy destroys plastic and organic elements by subjecting them to extreme temperatures. It leaves only the metallic elements (nickel cobalt, copper and cobalt, etc.). They are then separated using chemical processes.
- Hydrometallurgy is a process that is not a high-temperature stage. Instead, it can separate the components through different bath solutions chemically modified to extract the material.
In both instances, batteries must first be crushed into the form of a powder. The two processes are in operation at a large scale, recycling the LIBs of telephones and laptops to extract the cobalt they hold. The material is so valuable that it is vital to recover it to ensure the profitability of the present LIB recycling industry.
However, since the LIB technologies utilized for EVs do not all contain cobalt, the business model for recycling these batteries needs to be answered, and there’s no industry-wide market for recycling the batteries. The primary reason for this is the absence of an adequate amount of batteries to be recycled. The mass roll-out of EVs is relatively recent, and their batteries are still at the expiration point.
In addition, the definition of”end of life” is up for debate. For instance, “traction” batteries (which permit EVs to function) are considered unfit when they have lost between 20 and 30 percent of their capacity, equivalent to a loss of autonomy for the vehicle.
Do EV batteries be reused?
There is a debate over the possibility of a “second life” for these batteries that would extend their lifespan and thus reduce their environmental footprint. The initial issues are related to the reconfiguration required for batteries and their electric monitoring mechanism. The next step is identifying the applications for these batteries with “reduced” capacity. They can be utilized to store energy connected to the electricity network in the same way as many studies have been conducted in this direction.
However, a significant actor like RTE, the owner and operator of France’s electric transmission system, believes that the application is economically and functionally unsuitable and suggests recycling battery EVs after their initial life.
Establishing a recycling industry that can adapt to changing technology
In order to establish a recycling business requires a financial model that can adapt to the variety of battery technologies without the requirement of many different recycling methods.
Finally, it should be noted that the issues of recycling and environmental impact are not simple to solve since the technologies have yet to mature, and their sustainability over the long term is yet to be assured. LIBs are evolving rapidly; lithium-metal batteries are currently being developed, for instance – and even the appearance of new technology that does not use lithium, like sodium-ion.
In all of these instances, the economic, environmental, and social consequences of recycling and manufacturing EV batteries and the materials they contain should be continued to be investigated. It is vital to continue using local and legislative pressure to increase transparency about manufacturing processes to measure their impact and determine ways to mitigate it. The upcoming European research programs and the environmental impact of the latest battery technology are placed in this field.
The best way to limit the battery’s use is to restrict the size and power of motor vehicles. Filip Mroz/Unsplash, CC BY
However, we should not simply sit and wait for some fantastic, pure low-cost, efficient battery technology that’s more of a pipe dream. Reducing the increase in EV battery sizes is crucial, which will restrict the capacity, mass, and autonomy of the cars themselves.
This means we must reconsider what we do and leave the vehicle-based model instead of attempting to replace one type of tech (the engine that burns fuel) with a different type (the electronic motor).