In 2019, John Goodenough, Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino jointly won the Nobel prize in chemistry. They invented and developed a technology that most of us use every day. Often, without even noticing. It’s in our ear buds, smartphones, laptop computers, cordless vacuum cleaners and electric scooters. It’s the lithium-ion battery.
This technology is key for us to drive around without burning fossil fuels. But what does it take to make all these batteries? What do we do with them once they are used?
The automobile has brought comfort and independence to the the lives of billions of people around the globe. But guzzling ever-growing amounts of fossil fuels has also taken its toll on the climate.
Thanks to lithium-ion batteries, we might now be entering a new era of mobility. Because of their high energy density, they are perfect in electric vehicles. For a relatively tiny package, they pack a big punch.
The global fleet of electric vehicles is predicted to grow immensely over the next decade. From around 8 million in 2020 to 145 million in 2030. This means the demand for lithium-ion batteries, will also shoot up. And this is where we might run into some problems.
We need materials to produce the batteries and in any extractive industry, it has an impact on the environment. Lithium is as you probably guessed pretty central to making a lithium-ion battery. About 50% of the world’s reserve of this alkali metal can be found in the so-called ”lithium triangle” across Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile.
Mining it involves pumping saltwater from underground lakes into pools and letting it evaporate – a process that could harm the surrounding soil, drain water supplies and contaminate the air. Also, lithium is finite.
A study found we could run into serious trouble by mid-century, if demand keeps growing like this. And then there’s cobalt that also goes into lithium-ion batteries. It’s a metal mainly found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Its mining has often been linked to inhumane working conditions and child labor. People exposed to it have suffered from lung disease or heart problems.
In addition, you have the energy that is required to make these batteries. Especially, the production of cells requires a lot of energy. This means – CO2 emissions. How much exactly really depends on the electricity mix of the producing country. But, according to recent figures, making just a small battery for a small sedan car could cause more than four tons of CO2.
To give you an idea, that is like driving a new diesel car bought in European Union for about 33,000 kilometers.
The good news is that emissions are sinking as battery production becomes more efficient and we shift towards cleaner energy sources. The bad news is that the batteries are losing capacity over time. So as there are more electric vehicles, there will also be more used-up batteries.
How do we deal with them?
According to researchers, the batteries should be recollected and selected, recombined and reused in different purposes, in different applications. The battery that could be used in an electric vehicle is actually very powerful. When they are used for a period of like five to eight years, they won’t be able to match the needs of being in a car. But, the batteries still have enough performance for other functions.
It is possible to give used car batteries a second life. For example, they can be turned into energy storage for wind and solar. They could also power your next camping trip. And there’s still enough juice left in those batteries to drive a forklift or a boat. Discarded electric vehicle batteries are already used for all these things today.
Lithium-ion batteries recycling often involves smelting, so essentially that means heating them until they melt. But, this uses lots and lots of energy, creates toxic emissions and loses some of the materials. Hence why companies are coming up with new ways to recycle.
One way is that the batteries are shredded while being submerged in a nontoxic solution. This is important because it prevents them from catching fire and in the worst case blowing up. Then, materials like plastic, copper, and aluminum are separated from what the industry calls the ‘black mass’. This contains the valuable materials like cobalt, nickel, and lithium. The end goal is that as we pull these out of the batteries, we are putting them back into new batteries.
It is hard to keep track exactly how many lithium-ion batteries already get recycled, mainly because they are often exported. But it is already happening more and more, especially in Asia where most of them are also produced. As volumes of used batteries grow, it will also make even more financial sense to recycle them.
The lithium-ion battery is already one of the most circular products there is. It’s already reused today, and ultimately it’s also recycled. We can optimize this better. The more batteries we have on the market, the more obvious that will be in the coming years.