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Sustainability implications of Lithium ion batteries for electric vehicles

By Dinesh Kumar Madheswaran, researcher, Green Vehicle Technology Research Centre, SRM University, India

Sustainability tradeoffs are anticipated to accompany the rapid growth in Li-ion battery usage for electric vehicle applications. Li-ion batteries cut down the market for rare earth metals however expanded the utilization of lithium, cobalt, manganese, and nickel as replacements for NiMH batteries. Several reports have examined how EVs would affect the need for certain materials, notably lithium. Even while these studies have helped alleviate concerns of a future lithium shortage, the countries still face difficulties gaining access to global lithium supplies. Only a handful of nations are home to most of the world’s lithium resources; the US, for example, has only 0.4% of the world’s lithium reserves and 3.6% of the global ones. Future trade-market bans or political turmoil might significantly influence the already politically turbulent Li-ion battery sectors. However, the US relies heavily on imported Co, Mn, and Ni supplies since these elements still need to be mined in considerable quantities and are essential to producing Li-ion batteries.

Unregulated disposal

The potential for unregulated disposal of Li-ion battery trash, which like neglected electronic waste, can pose health and safety hazards, is a long-term sustainability concern. The materials employed to construct batteries would determine how much they pose an environmental problem. Battery wastes containing metals like Lithium, Cobalt, Copper, Manganese, Nickel, etc., threaten soil and water quality when dumped in landfills. Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure studies have shown that these do not threaten the environment. Compared to the 6–9 Li-ion cells in a standard laptop battery, an EV’s battery pack has hundreds of cells. More widespread battery production will likely increase the severity and frequency of battery usage risks. Therefore, assessing potential risks to environmental safety is essential.

Compared with various battery chemistries, EV batteries have a lower energy demand of material. recovering them would benefit the environment

Environmental effects

The environmental effects of EV Li-ion batteries across their whole life cycles have been the subject of several research. Compared with various battery chemistries, EV batteries have a lower energy demand of material. However, recovering them would benefit the environment (Table 1). The energy demand advantage of lithium and manganese in their latter state has not yet been demonstrated because they are not yet recycled on an industrial scale. End-of-life (EOL) management for EV Li-ion batteries emphasizes recycling and reuse, alleviates the supply-chain issues of these materials, addresses waste management worries, and benefits the environment by decreasing mining needs.

Li-ion battery materialCED –Primary metal
(MJ/kg)
CED –Secondary metal
(MJ/kg)
Li416
Al19524
Ni18815
Co12938
Cu6128
Mn589

Table 1. Cumulative energy demand (CED) of well-perceived Li-ion battery metals

Furthermore, the EOL of Li-ion batteries can be recycled for metal recovery. According to projections, markets for recycling electric vehicles and Li-ion batteries are expected to grow to over $2.5 billion by 2025. However, the cathode chemical mix in this waste stream would determine how profitable the EV battery recycling industry is. Current Li-ion battery recycling technologies are accelerated by the high economic value of cobalt, which is present in most EOL batteries from consumer devices. However, the economic and policy consequences of battery recycling may vary when new material and value streams are introduced. Li-Fe phosphate and Li-Mn oxide batteries offer no financial incentive to recycle because acquiring battery-grade Li and Mn from such batteries is pricey than acquiring those metals from their mineral deposits. However, future economies are predicted owing to massive Li-ion battery waste that might drive recycling. Governments must offer incentives when there isn’t a financial motivation to recycle low-material-value Li-ion battery wastes.

Technological viability

It is also predicted that after their time in EVs, Li-ion batteries would still retain 70-80% of their capacity, allowing them to serve in the grid for less demanding energy storage. Potential secondary applications for decommissioned EV Li-ion batteries include transmission support, light business load, home load, and backup power for distributed node telecommunications, which are technically and financially viable. The technological viability of EV Li-ion battery reuse and “cascading” usage for stationary energy storage is also being tested through partnerships between automakers (Nissan-Sumitomo Corp and General Motors) and utility providers (ABB Group). California’s retired plug-in electric car fleet could supply 5% of the state’s power consumption. The cascaded use model would have lesser perceived value by customers and face challenges in efficiency, dependability, technological advances, specifications for design, and revenue models similar to recycling. Because of the “thermal runaway” risk associated with Li-ion cells, additional regulations may be necessary to facilitate the shipping and collecting of EV Li-ion batteries and the location of sizeable stationary energy storage systems along the cascaded usage pathway. A sustainable market for recycled EV Li-ion batteries in grid or off-grid and sustainable energy storage systems may be established by breaking through barriers to secondary use in stationary applications.

Management pathways

Both EOL management pathways offer the potential to lessen the ecological effects of EV Li-ion batteries by minimizing battery material deposits while minimizing the depletion of resources and other environmental impacts (e.g., poisoning, carbon footprint, etc.) that accompany the manufacturing of Li-ion batteries. When looking at the environmental benefits of EV technology from a systemic viewpoint, it is essential to consider how cascading uses of full Li-ion battery packs, modules, or cells and recycling of basic Li-ion battery materials might increase these benefits. Since Li-ion batteries are a sizable expense for EV owners, finding practical ways to recycle them and create a closed loop for the materials is essential. This can facilitate affordable batteries and increase interest in EVs. Therefore, it is critical to evaluate the monetary and ecological consequences of EOL EV lithium-ion batteries considering the following:

  • Determining and describing the battery discharges that might infiltrate the waste stream due to the growing use of batteries in electric vehicles with immediate and distant later use.
  • Investigating the environmental advantages of reusing EV battery packs for stationary power retention throughout life cycles.
  • Evaluating the costs and benefits of various EOL management strategies in conjunction with a waste management scale influenced by the circular economy.

About the author
Dinesh Kumar Madheswaran is a budding researcher from Green Vehicle Technology Research Centre, SRM University, India. Through his studies, Dinesh optimism about making green and sustainable energy technology (batteries and fuel cell materials) more practical and affordable for automotive applications.

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