While driving an electric vehicle clearly reduces our carbon footprint compared to a fossil fuel car, the industry is still relatively new. This means that, along with its exciting benefits, the technology we use today has certain limitations. Quite a few environmental and economic challenges have to be addressed before electric cars become widely used on the roads.
From the extraction of the metals through manufacturing to recycling – let’s look in more detail at what the industry of EVs is doing to reach more sustainability.
Producing EV batteries requires huge amounts of graphite, cobalt and lithium. Unfortunately the extraction of these materials is harmful to the environment, mostly because it uses a lot of water and causes soil and air contamination. The leaders in extraction are Samsung and LG, while the end customers are Panasonic and Tesla.
For these leading companies, investing in sustainability and enforcing good environmental practices is a matter of reputation. This, luckily, makes such corporations invest in greener technologies. Recently developed LiTAS, designed and patented by EnergyX, is a set of advanced techniques that allow lithium extraction to be more efficient and less labour- and land-intensive.
Design and manufacturing
Car engines, especially older and inefficient ones, are huge pollutants. Since electric vehicles have no internal combustion engine, there is no doubt that they will help significantly reduce the emissions coming from transportation.
Currently EV batteries are made of cobalt, nickel and graphite but the latest research findings are starting to show that they can be replaced by other methods. The design of such batteries will hopefully be pushed up in the coming years to increase their capacity and lifetime. Tesla, for instance, aims at eliminating cobalt from the electrodes of EV batteries, as well as changing the actual composition of the batteries.
The amount of CO2 emitted per year by electric car batteries can be lowered. This will happen thanks to the improved, eco-friendlier automotive technologies and along with the growing awareness among consumers.
Firstly, the manufacturer should be committed to recycle and replace the battery after years. Today an EV battery has typically a lifetime of 8 years so the industry needs to be ready for a technological marathon in terms of spare parts and efficient recycling. The key is establishing standards to ensure that new batteries will be available and the old ones – properly disposed of.
Electric car users can also apply certain practices to slow their battery degradation. Not letting the battery run totally down, controlling its temperature (most importantly preventing it from getting too hot) as well as charging only with the approved charging systems are relatively simple ways to prolong their longevity.
In terms of electric car usage, the electricity used to charge batteries is what ultimately defines how green an EV can be. Electric vehicles have a higher output in miles than fossil fuel cars per kWh, but the electricity must come from renewable sources. This is not that much in the hands of EV manufacturers, but rather of energy utilities and governments.
The Global Battery Alliance sees the future amount of used car batteries as a huge resource and wants to promote recycling through proper collection, technology standards, and increase liability from the manufacturers.
Umicore has set up a pilot plant in Antwerp (Belgium) and has agreements with Toyota and Tesla to recycle batteries and extract metals. After all, every 28 tons of used batteries can be processed to obtain 1 ton of lithium. Currently extracting metals from recycling is still costly but such initiatives aim to increase the capacity and viability of battery recycling.
The Japanese car manufacturer Nissan, in turn, has partnered with Eaton to refurbish batteries for less demanding uses than EV. This is a good example of another way in which battery waste can be used sustainably.
The way to achieving sustainability of electric vehicle batteries is still may indeed be both technological and economic as the automotive industry is transforming and reinventing new paradigms.