Make no mistake, electric vehicles and their batteries are a crucial step towards a more sustainable future in transportation, as they offer a cleaner and greener alternative to traditional combustion engine cars. On-road operation of EVs results in significantly fewer greenhouse gas emissions, with zero tailpipe emissions.
However, the production of batteries for EVs does present some environmental and social challenges. Some studies have shown that the manufacturing of a typical EV battery can result in higher carbon emissions compared to petrol and diesel cars. This is due to the significant amount of energy required for the procurement of raw materials and the manufacturing process itself.
The majority of this energy consumption is linked to the production of the EV battery, which requires the extraction of rare and challenging-to-source materials such as lithium, cobalt, and manganese.
The sustainability of electric vehicle batteries
While the current production processes for EV batteries are not yet as sustainable as we would like, their clean operation over the life of the vehicle more than compensates for the initial environmental impact. It is essential that the industry continues to work towards making battery production more sustainable and transition to clean energy sources.
In this article, we will delve deeper into the environmental impact of gathering the raw materials for EV batteries, examine the rising alternatives, and explain why driving electric remains a more sustainable option than driving a petrol car, even with the current challenges.
The rise of EVs as a sustainable alternative
Drivers in the UK and around the world are becoming more aware of their environmental impact. According to our research in collaboration with Ipsos, 62 percent of the UK general public says that reducing CO2 emissions in transport is important, and 7 out of 10 EV drivers cite environmental considerations as decisive when buying a car.
It’s no surprise, then, that electric vehicles are gaining in popularity.
While EVs produce little to no emissions while driving, their production, and in particular their battery, can have a significant environmental impact.
Let’s explore in more detail how EV batteries, and the raw materials they contain, can be less environmentally friendly than they may seem at first thought.
Environmental impact of battery production and disposal
Electric car batteries are complex components containing many rare earth elements (REE), like lithium, nickel, cobalt, and graphite. As their name suggests, these materials are difficult to find and extract, requiring intensive mining and even some polluting processes to separate them from the soil. This is why producing EV batteries can be environmentally challenging.
EV battery production
An EV battery is made up of thousands of rechargeable lithium-ion cells connected to form the battery pack. Beyond the raw materials that make up its cells, an EV battery needs many more hardware and software components to make it functional. Let’s take a look at the environmental impact of producing an electric vehicle battery.
EV battery raw materials
The primary materials that make up an EV battery are lithium, manganese, and cobalt. A report by Nature estimates that a typical EV battery uses about 8 kilograms of lithium, 14 kilograms of cobalt, and 20 kilograms of manganese.
Let’s explore below each material’s mining process and its environmental impact.
Although there are other EV battery chemistries, lithium-ion cells are by far the most popular, thanks to their cost-efficiency and relatively high energy density, offering an optimal trade-off between electricity storage capacity and price.
Lithium is mainly produced from salt flats or underground brine reservoirs, with most of the production concentrated in South America (namely Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile) and China.
Extracting lithium from the brine is fairly straightforward and is done by evaporating the water to leave behind a lithium-rich solution.
Lithium mining’s environmental impact
Because of this evaporation process, lithium mining uses a large amount of groundwater that gets lost in the process. This can deprive local communities of drinking water and harms farming by reducing the water available for irrigation – especially given that most of the world’s lithium is extracted in arid regions with scarce water supplies in the first place.
On top of that, the remaining liquid left after lithium is extracted can contain toxic or radioactive elements and needs to be cleaned and stored before it can be released.
Besides lithium, cobalt is an often-cited culprit in EV batteries’ environmental and social impact. Cobalt is currently one of the main components of an EV battery’s cells.
Cobalt is produced as a byproduct of copper and nickel mining but can also be mined directly, with Australia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) being the main producers.
Cobalt mining’s environmental impact
Cobalt is perhaps one of the most problematic materials used in electric vehicles, both environmentally and socially. Cobalt mines produce toxic residues that can leach into the environment, poisoning groundwater and harming nearby communities. Additionally, smelting cobalt ore produces fumes with a high concentration of sulphur oxide and other air pollutants.
On top of their environmental impact, cobalt mines also raise labor concerns. With little formal regulation and oversight, workers in cobalt mines are often underpaid and lack adequate protective equipment, tools, and training. These dangerous conditions create problematic labor practices, which can lead to injury, long lasting health conditions, or even death.
To address these unfavourable circumstances, many leading automobile companies have made a commitment to obtain cobalt, graphite, and lithium from reliable and traceable sources. Meanwhile, battery producers are moving away from using cobalt and focusing more on materials that are easily accessible and have fewer issues, such as nickel or iron. Innovative studies on solid-state batteries hold the potential to completely eliminate the use of cobalt and significantly enhance the capacity and efficiency of new batteries.
Compared to lithium and cobalt, manganese is often overlooked in the discussion about the raw materials needed for EV battery production. That said, it is a critical component in electric car batteries, and demand for it has risen considerably in recent years.
Manganese is the fifth most abundant metal on Earth and is often found alongside iron deposits. Manganese is usually mined in open pit mines, with around 80% of manganese production coming from South Africa. Australia, China, India, Ukraine, and Brazil also produce significant shares of the metal.
Manganese mining’s environmental impact
Because of its mining in open pits, manganese extraction can cause substantial air pollution, especially in dry areas where dust from mining can rise easily. Additionally, manganese can pollute the soil and water supply, including by introducing other chemical elements.
The rise of LFP batteries
Given the problematic sourcing of many materials used in EV batteries, manufacturers are actively looking for new, environmentally and socially friendly solutions for producing batteries. One such alternative is lithium iron phosphate (LFP or Li-FP) technology, which uses iron instead of cobalt.
Compared to lithium-ion (Li-ion), LFP batteries have a number of advantages and challenges. Their main drawback, which has historically limited their use in EVs, is their lower energy density, meaning they tend to be less efficient and have a shorter range than Li-ion batteries.
That said, LFP batteries are also much easier (and thus cheaper) to produce, using much more commonly available materials. They are also more heat-resistant than Li-ion batteries and tend to have a longer lifespan.
EV manufacturers are already using LFP batteries, with Chinese manufacturers leading the way in LFP batteries. Still, Western companies are also adopting LFP technology, with Tesla, for example, reporting that half of its cars are already using cobalt-free LFP batteries.
Environmental impact of charging and driving electric cars
Because they don’t burn petrol or diesel to fuel their engines, the main environmental impact of electric cars comes from their manufacturing, and in particular, their battery. Of course, how sustainable an EV is for everyday use depends on how the electricity used to charge it is generated.
An EV powered by renewable sources, such as solar energy, will have a much lower impact than an EV powered by electricity generated using coal or natural gas. Still, on average, an EV reaches parity in terms of emissions with a combustion car engine after around 33,000 km on the road.
How sustainable are EV batteries really?
While EV battery production currently contends with some negative environmental and social impacts, new extraction processes, battery chemistries, and materials are paving the way for a more sustainable future.
Despite the widespread utilisation of battery technology, its application as a power source for electric vehicles is still in its early stages. As costs continue to decrease and advancements are made, policymakers and industry leaders have a duty to enhance the working conditions related to the mining and production of batteries.
Of course, the impact of producing an electric car will never be zero, so reusing and recycling old EV batteries is critical for ensuring the materials they contain remain useful for as long as possible.
Thankfully, it’s worth remembering that throughout their life, EVs are much more sustainable than petrol-powered vehicles. EV batteries are currently expected to last about 15-20 years and can be reused and recycled to recover most of the raw materials that they contain.