An electric vehicle (EV) will incur many fewer emissions over its life than would an internal combustion engine (ICE)-powered vehicle. The materials required for EV battery manufacturing cause a number of environmental impacts, though, and are of concern.
In the cases of lithium, cobalt, and rare earth elements, the world’s top 3 producers control well over three-quarters of global output. This high geographical concentration, the long lead times to bring new mineral production on stream, the declining resource quality in some areas, and various environmental and social impacts all raise concerns around reliable and sustainable supplies of minerals to support the energy transition.
Over the lifetime of the vehicle, total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with manufacturing, charging, and driving an EV are lower than the total GHGs associated with a gasoline car. That’s because EVs have zero tailpipe emissions and are typically responsible for significantly fewer GHGs during operation. Researchers at Argonne National Laboratory estimated emissions for both an ICE-powered car and an EV with a 300-mile electric range. In their estimates, while GHG emissions from EV manufacturing and end-of-life are higher, total GHGs for the EV are still lower than those for the ICE-powered car.
Yet there’s no hiding it: even though EVs full life emissions are fewer than an ICE-powered vehicle, EV manufacturing has a dark side and conflicting priorities that need focus and research.
An EV needs about 200 kg of minerals like copper, nickel, cobalt, and lithium. That’s 6x more than an ICE-powered car. In a scenario outlined by the IEA that meets the Paris Agreement goals, clean energy technologies’ share of total demand rises significantly over the next two decades to over 40% for copper and rare earth elements, 60-70% for nickel and cobalt, and almost 90% for lithium.
The Search is on for Metals in Battery Valley & Elsewhere
The Inflation Reduction Act, the most powerful US climate bill ever passed, devotes nearly $400 billion to clean energy initiatives over the next decade, including EV tax credits. EVs that will be eligible for the $7,500 credit are made in North America using batteries with minerals dug out of the ground in the US or from its trading partners.
The Zero Emissions Transportation Association (ZETA) and Ford Motor Company claim that promoting US mining will help put more EVs on the road. In written comments to an Interior Department working group on mining law reform, they urged President Joe Biden to make it easier to develop mining projects on federal lands. It’s part of a bigger picture in the search for more domestic sources of minerals and materials for lithium-ion batteries amid growing tensions between the West and China, the latter of which controls supply chains for battery metals.
A new mine in the US can take 7 to 10 years to complete all the permitting and paperwork before going online. In Canada and Australia, that process only takes 2 to 3 years, Ford argues.
Not all US automakers are waiting. Drive Tesla Canada has been enthusiastically reporting on clues that Tesla will build its next Gigafactory in their country. Recent sightings of Tesla at Nouveau Monde’s mine continues that speculation due to its capacity to supply anode-making materials to battery manufacturers. Noveau Monde could be intriguing to Tesla with its claims to be the largest mine deposit in North America.
— TheTeslaLife (@TheTeslaLife) September 2, 2022
An EV Battery & Lithium: Energy Storage & Controversy
A crucial part of battery manufacturing is lithium — a soft, white metal that’s excellent at storing energy. The International Energy Agency has projected that demand will grow by over 40 times by 2040 if the countries of the world stick to their Paris Agreement targets to reduce GHG emissions. EVs and battery storage have already displaced consumer electronics to become the largest consumer of lithium and are set to take over from stainless steel as the largest end user of nickel by 2040.
Lithium is extracted from rocks or brine.
- Spodumene: Digging for a lithium-rich ore called spodumene uses an open pit mining process, which poses significant risks to the environment from scars to the land and from extracting processes. Mines in Tasmania, for example, have been leaking contaminated water for the past 5 years. 79% of extractable lithium in the US is found within 35 miles of Native reservations. Some such mining projects, while providing metals key to addressing the global challenge of transitioning away from fossil fuels, may face strong and increasing opposition from Native Americans for threatening sacred areas or traditional ways of life.
- Brine: Brine — seawater, other surface water, groundwater, or hyper-saline solutions — is mixed with freshwater and left to sit in ponds for up to 18 months. The water eventually evaporates and leaves behind minerals. More processing is needed before lithium can be extracted. Concentrated brine, which is the by-product of desalination, holds an even higher concentration of valuable minerals in comparison to other brine sources – thereby making it a resource for lithium extraction.
Several universities, startups, and innovators are engaged in R&D to produce cleaner metal extraction. Of particular interest is direct extraction, which involves sourcing lithium straight from brine rather than evaporating water and using chemicals to remove impurities. The quest with that technology is to make it a process commercially viable.
Final Thoughts about Battery Manufacturing
There are expected to be about 10 million EV battery packs shipped in 2022 globally, with numbers anticipated to rise to 30 million in 2027. California will ban the sale of new ICE-powered cars by 2035, another step in the global marketplace toward the transition to all-electric transportation and the need for EV batteries.
Recycling EV batteries is often looked to as a means to reduce the emissions associated with making an EV by cutting requirements for primary supply. Recycling takes into account both conventional sources and emerging waste streams such as spent batteries from electric vehicles. But battery recycling is only a proverbial drop in the EV manufacturing bucket.
Responsible extraction is essential. It involves investigating local biodiversity, water flows, and the concerns of local communities to figure out how to reduce harm, Aimee Boulanger, executive director of the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance, told the New York Times. Those measures can be expensive, which can cut into profits, so most companies adhere to minimal law requirements.
Progress toward responsible extraction is taking place, albeit slowly, in Chile and the US. Boulanger argues that those laws are often not strict enough to really protect the environment, saying, “It doesn’t take a lot of new technology.”
Critics like ZETA and Ford counter that the urgency of the climate crisis means the world doesn’t have time to extract these metals in a meticulous way. “Maybe we would not live in the climate-stressed world we live in right now if we had looked at the impacts of sourcing oil and gas,” she notes, adding, “We don’t have time to make more messes as we try to solve this problem.”
Australian National University professor of economic geology John Mavrogenes says that many mining choices about the confluence of profitability and responsibility are soon to take place. “We have to decide as a country, how valuable is a place, and is it worth risking for mining.”
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