Electric vehicles are growing in popularity today like never before. With the marketing surrounding the innovation, it is easy for a consumer to think that replacing their fossil fuel-powered vehicles with a modern EV is all they need to do to do right by the environment. If only saving the planet was that straightforward.
There is no denying that electric vehicles do have some significant advantages over traditional vehicles. But various arguments can be made about why you shouldn’t ditch your current vehicle in favour of a shiny, new two- or four-wheeler running on electricity. Especially so if your thought behind the act is to be a more environmentally-conscious human being.
One such argument about why EVs aren’t exactly problem-free is the recycling of their batteries. Automotive batteries do not last a lifetime. They need to be replaced after a few years. The number of years depends on the type of battery and the vehicle. Electric vehicles today use Lithium-ion batteries, which should last between five to twelve years.
After their lifecycle, EV batteries should ideally end up in recycling. However, lithium-ion batteries are difficult to safely discard, especially in comparison to lead-acid batteries used in fossil fuel vehicles. Why is this the case?
“Lithium-ion batteries are designed today for performance and not for recycling or second life. There’s very little discussion right now about these environmental dimensions of improving battery design for recycling or reuse,” said Fenqui You, Professor in Energy Systems Engineering at Cornell University, and one of the authors of a study that points out better ways to deal with discarded EV batteries.
Apart from being difficult to dispose of or recycle, Li-ion batteries are environmentally expensive. These batteries, apart from lithium, are composed of minerals such as cobalt and copper. Over 70% of the world’s cobalt today comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to a CFR post. DRC is a site of several human rights incidents associated with cobalt mining, including child labour, ethnic clashes, worker exploitations, and more.
The demand for cobalt is projected to grow, owing to its use in Li-ion batteries, among its other applications. Adding to this is the push for EVs by authorities and governments around the world to encourage climate-friendly options, through subsidies and bonuses.
The Cornell study suggests the use of nickel as a possible alternative for cobalt. Nickel mining may not be entirely devoid of any costs, but making it cleaner is a possibility. Furthermore, nickel can be extracted as a side-product during other mining processes, thus making it a relatively better option.
In addition to nickel as an alternative, the study also suggests that lithium-ion batteries be reused before being sent into recycling. The authors found that reusing before recycling may reduce the carbon footprint of these batteries by 17%. Reuse opportunities can be found in wind and solar energy-storing power stations, where batteries with reduced energy capacities can be a suitable option.
Adding to how recycling EV batteries and recovering raw materials from it is a difficult process, co-author Yanqiu Tao, a doctoral student at the Cornell University said, “In the study, we consider the commonly used graphite as the anode-active material, which is hard to recycle and emits carbon dioxide when it’s combusted. If policymakers can promote graphite separation or emerging recycling methods, it would reduce the environmental impact.”
I am a simple writer who wishes to use her skill to create more awareness about the planet that offers us life.