The ethical and environmental impact of mining the minerals needed for EV batteries is a valid concern. Let’s take a look at what manufacturers are doing to reduce these impacts.
What’s getting mined and why is that a problem?
Currently, most EV batteries are made with lithium-ion and contain a mineral called cobalt, in the cathode.
Cobalt has been called the blood diamond of the EV industry. It’s mostly found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and some of the money from its sale goes to continuing the country’s ethnic conflict. To make matters worse, children are often used to mine the mineral and the process is dangerous.
This isn’t just a problem for EV battery manufacturers – it’s also an issue for the batteries that go into phones, laptops and every other portable electronic device we use these days.
But there are solutions.
Moving away from cobalt
Lots of manufacturers have been slashing their use of cobalt and replacing it with nickel. Nickel-based batteries boast greater driving ranges, longer lives and lower costs than cobalt-based cells. And nickel is mined in many more countries around the world, including Australia, Brazil, Russia and Canada.
Unfortunately, there are still issues with nickel too. Extracting nickel can be damaging to the local environment and can cause public health risks, especially in lower-income countries like Indonesia and the Philippines, where some of the largest nickel reserves are found.
Now there’s a new battery combination that is raising the game further still. It’s called lithium iron phosphate (LFP) and it doesn’t use any nickel or cobalt. In other good news, these batteries last almost twice as long as cobalt-based lithium-ion batteries and they’re much cheaper.
Giving EV batteries a second life
While manufacturers are working on how to improve the materials that go into the batteries, what happens to them at the end of their life is also really important in the quest to make them better for the environment. There are a few options here and these will become better as improvements in battery technology increase their useful life.
Reusing the batteries
When they come to the end of their life in an EV, the batteries are far from dead. Instead, they can be used as static energy stores in the electricity network or even in the home.
Experts think that lithium-iron phosphate batteries in particular could be massively important for large-scale energy storage. In the next few decades, it’s predicted that terawatt-hours worth of batteries will become available for use in energy storage. To put that number into perspective, the largest nuclear power plant in the U.S. generates around 30 terawatt-hours worth of energy a year. So this is a lot of extra potential!
This will help bring down the cost of storage and will make it easier for utility companies to increase the amount of renewable power generation they can build into the network.
Storage is needed because renewable power generation is generally a little patchier in supply than fossil fuels. For example, the presence of the sun or wind is not constant in the same way that a fossil fuel burning plant can generate power 24/7. The batteries would work to even out this supply, so that energy is available as and when it’s needed.
Recycling of the components and minerals
Once batteries reach the end of their working life, they can also be recycled. This involves separating out valuable materials like cobalt, nickel, lithium, stainless steel, copper, aluminium and plastic.
Recycling will get cheaper as more EV batteries come to the end of their life. This will lower the cost of the recycled minerals, until it becomes cheaper to use recycled minerals to make new batteries, rather than to mine new ones.
To see the potential of this, the vehicle manufacturer VW has recently created a pilot battery recycling plant. Their aim is to recycle a whopping 97% of the EV battery components, using them to make new batteries.
A cleaner zero-emission future
The issues surrounding some of the minerals used in EV batteries is an important one as we make the move away from fossil-fueled transport and towards a zero-emissions future. That’s why manufacturers are working on solutions at both ends of a battery’s life – in how it is made and in how it’s used when it comes to the end of its life in an EV.
But remember that even now, driving an EV still has a lower environmental footprint than driving a gas-powered car!