Are EV Batteries Bad for the Environment?
Massive adoption of electric vehicles (EVs) requires manufacturers to increase battery production to meet growing global demand. But what are the costs of manufacturing this essential EV component?
What Are the Negative Impacts of EV Batteries?
Anything made with natural resources has a direct impact on the environment. Since EV batteries play a critical role in how an EV functions, it’s vital to look at how they’re made.
Electric car batteries use rare earth elements like lithium, cobalt, nickel and graphite. Extracting these precious materials from the earth requires intensive mining, posing health and environmental risks to people and nature.
- Pollution From Mining
Lithium — one of the most essential components of EV batteries — offers high electric storage capacity, making it a popular choice among car manufacturers. However, sourcing it can be incredibly taxing to the environment. Lithium mining uses massive amounts of groundwater to filter lithium particles from underground brine reservoirs.
Much of the groundwater used in the process is often wasted, while the remaining liquid can be toxic. Too much groundwater loss can be detrimental to local communities near lithium mines and toxic byproducts pose a contamination risk to the already dwindling underground water supply.
- Environmental Degradation
Cobalt produces similar environmental issues related to mining. A cobalt mine produces toxic chemicals that seep into the soil and groundwater, affecting local communities’ health and capability to farm and fish. In addition, smelting cobalt ores generates fumes with high sulfur oxide concentrations and other air pollutants.
Copper — another essential EV battery component — comes from deep underground. One of the widely used means of extraction is open-pit mining. This type of mining involves digging huge holes into the ground, kicking up dust that pollutes the air, and leaching chemicals that contaminate exposed water supplies.
- Minimal Recycling
Many drivers choose EVs over traditional combustion engines due to rising fuel costs and ongoing global environmental campaigns. They’re switching to cleaner transportation to contribute to net zero emissions. However, many people don’t know EV batteries are challenging to recycle.
Electric car companies use different materials and manufacturing processes to make batteries. This makes EV battery recycling more complex and dangerous. Data from the U.S. Department of Energy showed that only around 5% of lithium-ion batteries were recycled or salvaged in 2019, a far cry from the 90% recycling rate of traditional batteries for gas-powered vehicles.
Positive Environmental Impacts of EV Batteries
The battery is arguably the most important component of an EV. It is responsible for the safety of its passengers and other drivers on the road. It also dictates the distance an electric vehicle can travel.
Manufacturers are racing to improve EV battery design, experimenting with different materials and manufacturing processes to create the most efficient and reliable power source. It’s an expected outcome, especially since experts estimate that 50% of vehicles on the road could be EVs by 2055.
- Lower Greenhouse Gas Emissions
While electric cars require more natural resources, they make up for their environmental impact with zero emissions as long as they are in use. Upon reaching the 200,000-mile mark, EVs produce significantly lower emissions than traditional gas-powered vehicles. The emissions saving can help the environment recover from decades of reliance on fossil fuels contributing to climate change, mainly if EVs use electricity generated by renewable sources like solar, wind, and geothermal.
- Reduced Fuel Consumption
Many countries worldwide are trying to break free from fossil fuels by switching to green transportation. EVs provide that opportunity by offering a cleaner alternative to gasoline- and diesel-powered cars.
All-electric vehicles relying on electric power have better fuel economy than traditional vehicles. EVs are more efficient than gasoline vehicles, converting over 77% of electrical energy from every charge into wheel power. Conventional combustion engines can only convert up to 30% of energy from burning fossil fuels.
- Promising Recycling Future
EV battery recycling still poses challenges, but car manufacturers and recycling companies continue to pour resources into optimizing the process for good. The same rare earth minerals used in EV batteries, like lithium, cobalt, and nickel, retain their value as electric cars reach their end-of-life stages.
Salvaging usable materials from EV batteries can help defray costs in the future, especially since global battery recycling revenues are expected to grow to more than $95 billion annually by 2040.
EV Battery Production: Embracing the Good, Changing the Bad
Switching to greener and cleaner transportation requires initial investment and sacrifice. Companies must continue to develop breakthrough solutions to minimize the negative environmental impacts of EV production. As manufacturing technologies evolve, so will electric cars and their positive long-term environmental impacts.