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A Green Dilemma in Lithium-ion Battery


Electric cars, laptops, and smartphones—what do all three have in common? Lithium ion (Li-ion) batteries are found in increasingly more applications, thanks to being lightweight but energy dense and also rechargeable. Electric cars have the added benefit of producing no toxic exhaust at the roadside and no carbon emissions as well if powered by clean energy.

The age of electric cars is finally here. Major car manufacturers and countries pledged last year to end of the sales of fossil fuel vehicles globally by 2040.[1]Even without this push, electric cars are forecasted to dominated more than half of new passenger car sales by 2035.[2]

Will the world face a new problem with this boom for lithium though? The battery of an electric car is obviously much bigger than that of your typical laptop or phone and will much more lithium. It is estimated that the electric car industry will account for more than three-quarters of lithium demand by 2030.[3]

As the 25th most abundant element, planet Earth luckily has no shortage of lithium—at least more than enough for our global energy transition. How green our lithium is however is another question.

The majority of our lithium demand is fed by Chile and Argentina, where it is mined by pumping up groundwater brine and precipitated to extract the metal. This process depletes local aquifers and leaving behind heavy metals that can contaminate other water sources. While the actual amount would differ across car models, one electric car will need anywhere from 4,000-5,000 gallons of water to produce enough lithium for the battery.[4]Battery-grade lithium production can be an energy-intensive process as well. Both China and Australia for example employ roasting—a process which uses a large amount of energy—to extract the lithium from hard rocks.

The abundance of accessible lithium unfortunately means that it is currently cheaper to extract for new lithium than to recover lithium from batteries of old electric cars and other electronics—only around 5% of Li-ion battery is recycled globally today.[5]

To make batteries greener, the EU rolled out a regulatory framework last year, setting higher battery collection and recycling targets and mandatory minimums for recycled metal content in new batteries.[6]Such policies can have unintended consequences however, if they encourage companies scrap batteries prematurely to meet stricter targets.

The typical electric car battery packs will last some 10 years, retaining 70-80% capacity when they get retired.[7]These old batteries can still find a second life in less-demanding applications like stationary storage and boats. More incentives need to be in place to compel the reuse and repurposing of batteries before they reach their end of life.

The transition to electric cars is a must in tackling the climate crisis, but it cannot come at the cost of the very environment we want to protect.


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