Between 2000 and 2018, the number of lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) produced multiplied by 80. 66% of them were used in electric vehicles (EVs). The planned development of electric mobility will increase the demand for batteries, with the International Energy Agency estimating that between 2019 and 2030 the demand for batteries will increase. will grow 17 fold.
This situation raises many questions regarding the materials used to manufacture these batteries: what resources are involved? What are the environmental impacts of its extraction? Can they be recycled?
When you look at the materials in the LIBs that are currently used in the vast majority of EVs, the first thing to know is that there are multiple types of battery technology. While they all contain lithium, the other components vary: batteries in phones or computers contain cobalt, while those for vehicles may contain cobalt with nickel or manganese, or none at all in the case of iron phosphate technologies.
The exact chemical composition of these storage components is difficult to ascertain, as it is a trade secret. In addition, batteries are regularly upgraded to improve their performance so that their chemical composition evolves over time. In any case, the main materials involved in the production of LIBs are lithium, cobalt, nickel, manganese and graphite. These have all been identified as presentation material supply and environmental risks.
The demand for the supply of these materials is complex: on the one hand, the value of reserves is subject to geopolitical considerations and evolutions in extraction techniques; on the other hand, the need for materials is very sensitive to hypothetical predictions (number of EVs and battery size).
What are the environmental effects?
The issue of the environmental impact of battery production is perhaps even more important. Even if there are enough materials, the effects of their use should be seriously considered.
Studies show that battery production can have: serious consequences in terms of human toxicity or pollution of ecosystems. On top of that comes the need to monitor working conditions in certain countries. In addition, analyzing the environmental impact requires full knowledge of battery composition and manufacturing processes, but this information is: hard to get for obvious reasons related to industrial property.
Can recycling of the materials offer solutions to limit these risks and impacts?
There are two main families of battery recycling processesused individually or in combination.
- Pyrometallurgy, which destroys the organic and plastic components by exposing them to high temperatures, leaving behind only the metal components (nickel, cobalt, copper, etc.). These are then separated by chemical processes.
- pyrrotallurgy, which does not include the high temperature stage. Instead, it only separates the components through different baths with solutions chemically adapted to the materials to be recovered.
In both cases, the batteries must first be ground into powder. The two processes are currently working on an industrial scale recycling LIBs for phones and laptops to recover the cobalt they contain. This material is so precious that recovering it guarantees the economic profitability of the current LIB recycling industry.
But since the LIB technologies used for EVs do not all contain cobalt, the question of the economic model for recycling them remains unresolved and there is still no real industrial sector for recycling these batteries. The main reason is the lack of sufficient batteries to process: the widespread rollout of EVs is relatively recent and their batteries are not yet at the end of their life.
Moreover, the definition of this end of life itself is subject to debate. For example, ‘traction’ batteries (which allow EVs to drive) are considered unfit for use when they have lost 20 or 30% of their capacity, which corresponds to an equivalent loss of vehicle autonomy.
Can EV batteries get a second life?
There is ongoing debate about a possible “second life” for these batteries, which could extend their use and thus reduce their environmental impact. The first issues for this relate to the reconfiguration required for batteries and their electrical monitoring mechanism. Next, applications need to be identified for these “reduced” capacity batteries. They can be used for energy storage connected to the mains, such as many experiments have been carried out in this area.
However, a major player such as RTE, the operator and operator of the French electricity transmission network, believes that: this application is not suitablefunctional and economical, and recommends recycling EV batteries at the end of their first life.
Build a recycling industry that can adapt to evolving technologies
Establishing a recycling industry also requires an economic model that can adapt to the range of battery technologies, without requiring a large number of different recycling processes.
Finally, it should be noted that these environmental impact and recycling issues are not easy to address, as the technologies are not yet mature and their long-term sustainability is not yet guaranteed. LIBs are evolving very quickly – for example with lithium metal battery technologies being designed now – and we are even seeing the advent of competing non-lithium technologies such as sodium ion.
For all these reasons, the environmental, economic and social impacts of the production and recycling of EV batteries and their materials need further study. It is essential to continue to apply grassroots and legislative pressure to gain transparency about manufacturing processes so that we can quantify their impact and identify ways to mitigate them. Upcoming European research programs are also being positioned in this area, including the environmental dimension of new battery development.
However, we should not wait for some miraculous, clean, high-performing and cheap battery technology, which seems more like a utopia. It is important that we slow down the growth in the number of EV batteries and therefore limit the power, mass and autonomy of the vehicles themselves.
This means rethinking how we move – leaving the car model – rather than trying to replace one kind of technology (the combustion engine) with another (the electric motor).
This article by , Chercheur sur le stockage de l’energie dans les transports, University of Gustave Eiffelhas been reissued from The conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.