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How do EV batteries impact the environment?

With zero emissions, EVs trump petrol and diesel vehicles when it comes to emissions. But how do their batteries stack up?

 

As we transition towards a world of electrically-powered vehicles, many of us have questions about the sustainability of EVs - namely, the environmental impact of the batteries used in EVs. 

Electrochemist Dr Euan McTurk dissects the science behind EVs on his YouTube channel, and addresses some of the misconceptions around electric transport.

Dr Euan answers some frequently asked EV questions in his video below, as he breaks down the fact and fiction behind EV batteries... 

 

 

 

Are there enough raw materials to make batteries?

Fortunately, there are no rare-earth elements in lithium-ion batteries (the type of battery used in electric vehicles) - and the components used to make the cells of a lithium-ion battery are far more common than you may think.

These components include copper, graphite (carbon), lithium, a polymer separator, an electrolyte liquid or gel, lithium salt, aluminium, and a lithium metal oxide (which usually, but not always, contains cobalt).

Lithium and cobalt are the two elements which can raise questions around sustainability and supply. Let's take a look into lithium and cobalt in more detail...

Will we run out of lithium?

In short, no. There are approximately 14 million tons of lithium on land, which is enough to power 1.14 billion Nissan Leafs. There are also 230 billion tons of lithium in the sea - enough for 18.7 trillion Nissan Leafs!

Lithium-rich brines are found in Cornwall, Portugal and the Czech Republic.

Originally, batteries were only recycled for their copper and cobalt, which have a higher market value than lithium. However, with more emphasis on the importance of a sustainable, closed-loop supply chain, and better recycling techniques available, lithium can now be recovered and recycled from lithium-ion batteries.

Will we run out of cobalt?

In terms of supply, it's good news - supply from countries like Australia and Canada has recently increased. Plus, the cobalt content of lithium-ion batteries is actually decreasing with the introduction of new models, as producers are discovering how to manufacture batteries with cheaper and more abundant materials. 

The original 39% cobalt content of an EV battery has been reduced to around 4% in many modern EVs; some of the latest variants contain just 4% cobalt. That's a 90% cut in a decade, and this continues to decline. Tesla are even moving to some cobalt-free models.

However, smartphones and laptops still use an older form of battery, with a 39% cobalt content - 10x the ratio of cobalt in the latest EVs. So it's more important than ever to recycle our smartphone and laptop batteries, to help supply the cobalt needed for EVs.

It's estimated that 25,000 tonnes of cobalt will be recovered from dead consumer electronics batteries by 2025 - enough to supply 5.5 million Tesla Model 3s! Companies like Li-Cycle can recycle up to 100% of the materials from lithium-ion cells, so unlike fossil fuels, there aren't concerns around the supply of cobalt running out.

How long do EV batteries last?

EV batteries last far longer than you may think - in Dr Euan's video, he uses the example of a Nissan Leaf which was used as a taxi. After 100,000 miles, the battery is still showing as being in excellent health, despite heavy daily use.

Eventually, it racked up 174,000 miles as a taxi before moving to a new owner (far more than the average petrol or diesel vehicle's lifespan)! 

EV batteries generally retain their charging capacity even after hundreds of thousands of miles, and new electric cars now come with long battery warranties of up to 8 years. 

With advances being made in EVs and their batteries all the time, EVs are quickly overtaking their fossil fuel counterparts when it comes to reliability, lifespan and running cost. So there's no better time to join the electric evolution!

Why do EV batteries last longer than those in our mobile phone or laptops?

This is down to the superior battery management used in EVs. The cells in the battery pack are monitored by a chip, which checks the temperature and the current within the battery, to keep it running at optimal conditions.

This battery management system also means that the battery uses less than it's total usable capacity - by adding buffers to the battery's usage, this avoids degradation from overcharging or overdischarging.

Temperature also plays a big part in battery life - EV battery packs are exposed to temperatures from around -10c to 30c in the UK, which is roughly the optimum operating temperature for a battery.

However, our mobile phones can heat up to 37c in our pockets, and get even warmer with use (up to 50c!), which accelerates the battery's degradation.

Equally, a laptop can reach up to 90c when running! Laptop batteries are also subject to a thermal gradient, where the cells closer to the CPU get hotter and degrade more quickly than the others - shortening the life of the overall battery.

What happens to dead EV batteries?

After their life in your car, most EV batteries can go on to be used in energy storage systems. A 'dead' EV battery still has 70-80% of its original capacity left, which is plenty for a second life in energy storage.

Battery packs and modules from EVs are now being used to create domestic and grid-scale energy storage systems. For example, Nissan's xStorage home energy system uses second-life Leaf battery modules, which can be used to store renewable energy for your home. Despite using 'old' cells, they offer a 10 year warranty! 

Recycled EV battery cells are also used on larger scales, such as for storing solar power at commercial charging stations. So there's far more use left in a battery beyond its life in an EV!

Can EV batteries be recycled?

Yes! Companies like Li-Cycle are able to recover up to 100% of the materials from lithium-ion cells.

Battery recycling consultants Circular Energy Storage have over 90 recycling firms in their database, and the global capacity to recycle EV batteries should exceed the supply of end-of-life batteries by 2030; so we'll be able to recycle more than we produce!

Far from being a burden, recycling lithium-ion batteries can be a huge opportunity, creating a closed-loop supply chain where battery manufacturers can re-use raw materials to create new batteries. This can be a lucrative process, by importing waste to recycle and exporting the newly-created batteries.

So EV batteries have a far better lifespan than you might expect, and a greater capacity for recycling than most materials.

Additionally, you can also recycle your smartphone and laptop. Recycle Your Electricals help you to find your nearest reycling points for dead electricals. If your laptop still has some life left, initiatives like The Restart Project help to donate your laptop to a great cause once you're done with it, and this article gives plenty of tips on recycling your old phone to save it from landfill.

 

There are numerous studies suggesting that, while an EV is more expensive to manufacture, it is in fact better for the environment over its whole lifecycle.

And when an electric car reaches the end of the road, those valuable batteries can be removed and used to store energy to power your home more efficiently, eventually being recycled into new batteries! 

You can read more about electric vehicles here, and find out how much you could save by making the switch here