An editorial in the journal Nature calls on policy makers, industry leaders and researchers to mitigate quickly the environmental and human costs of Li-ion batteries.
Li-ion batteries currently are the indispensable enabling technology for electric vehicles and the electric grid, the latter due to the need to store energy from renewable sources. The market for Li-ion batteries is projected to grow from $30 billion in 2017 to some $100 billion in 2025.
But this increase is not itself cost-free … Lithium-ion technology has downsides—for people and the planet. Extracting the raw materials, mainly lithium and cobalt, requires large quantities of energy and water. Moreover, the work takes place in mines where workers—including children as young as seven—often face unsafe conditions.
… One crucial intervention, which needs further study, is the acceleration of battery reuse instead of, or in addition to, recycling them or disposing of them in landfills.—Nature editorial
Lithium production currently requires huge quantities of water in otherwise arid areas (salt flats in Argentina and Chile), or by exposing source material to high temperatures (China and Australia)—a process that consumers large quantities of energy.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) supplies about 70% of cobalt. Around 90% of the DRC’s cobalt comes from its industrial mines (90,000 tonnes annually).The world’s demand for cobalt has attracted thousands of individuals and small businesses (artisanal miners); child labor and unsafe working practices are rife.
Policies implementing battery recycling risk having their own detrimental impact on the environment.
The European Union, for example, requires companies to collect batteries at the end of their life and either repurpose them or dismantle them for recycling. The current requirement is for 45% of the EU’s used batteries to be collected—but few of these are lithium-ion batteries. This is partly because such batteries are often built into the devices they power and are hard to dismantle, or the devices themselves are valuable, which means they are likely to be exported for resale and disappear from the EU unreported. Meanwhile, the EU is considering a 70% target for batteries to be collected by 2030. In addition, it wants 4% of the lithium in new batteries made in the EU to be from recycled material by 2030, increasing to 10% by 2035.
Such requirements could have unintended consequences. As batteries improve, they will last longer. But if the EU mandates a higher collection rate, companies might feel compelled to take them out of service prematurely—to meet the numerical collection target—even though they could still have useful life left.
Similarly, there could be adverse consequences to mandating the inclusion of more recycled material in lithium-ion batteries. There’s already a shortage of recycled material. So, to satisfy the new recycling rules, Europe’s manufacturers could, perversely, need to import recycled material, in particular from China—which, along with South Korea, has become an important global centre for battery recycling. This would have a considerable carbon footprint. There is also a risk that battery production will stall because there isn’t enough recycled material available.—Nature editorial
Battery reuse should be considered, the editorial says. But without incentives in place for reuse and repurposing, incinerating old batteries or shipping them overseas for recycling will be more economical.
A shift in thinking is needed: scientists should consider how materials can be recycled, reused and repurposed as they design them. Batteries are crucial for Earth’s low-carbon future. It’s in everyone’s interests to make sure they are clean, safe and sustainable.—Nature editorial