Original thought leadership article published in North American Clean Energy
January 4, 2021 – Ajay Kochhar
Whether it’s their role in storing energy from carbon-neutral energy sources or their use in electric vehicles, personal electronics and more, lithium-ion (li-ion) batteries and their materials are fueling the worlds’ electrification. As such, the demand for the metals and materials that go into creating these Li-ion batteries is on the rise. The numbers back this up too, with a report from Roskill finding that demand for Li-ion batteries is set to increase more than ten-fold by 2029.
While this potential growth points towards a positive – and increasing – shift away from carbon-based energy sources, the implications of the lithium-ion batteries’ proliferation need to be considered. Why? Although it’s undeniable that carbon-neutral energy is the way of the future, the production of raw materials required to create the batteries results in both negative social and environmental impacts. Furthermore, when the batteries reach the end of their life, if not treated properly, they can be extremely dangerous and considered as ‘unclean’ as oil. Therefore, careful consideration must be taken to ensure that one harmful resource is not being exchanged for another.
What exactly are the harmful implications of a li-ion battery dominant future? The most significant pitfall lies in the raw materials necessary for the production of these batteries. The primary materials used in li-ion batteries are lithium, cobalt, nickel, manganese and graphite, which are scattered throughout the world and highly concentrated in certain countries where environmental and labour regulations are unclear or in some cases, non-existent, leaving locals vulnerable to exploitation and even violence. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, or DRC, is a prime example of this: accounting for almost two-thirds of the world’s supply of cobalt, the mining processes of which, according to a United Nations report, have been identified as dangerous, and involving the exploitation of child labor.
Additionally, the environmental implications of mining these materials must be considered. It’s widely understood that any type of mining for raw material can result in erosion, sinkholes, loss of biodiversity, soil, groundwater and surface water contamination. Not to mention the considerable amount of energy required to mine increases the release of harmful carbon emissions. Unfortunately, the continual extraction of these resources for battery production could result in a zero-sum game when compared with the extraction of crude oil – especially when the volume of materials needed to produce a li-ion battery for an electric vehicle is equal to the materials required to create 15,000 cell phone batteries. The demand for more and more electric vehicles – and the li-ion batteries that power them – is rising exponentially.
A Potential for Harm
Just like with oil, as the utilization of li-ion batteries increases, it’s inevitable that these batteries play a critical role across a broad spectrum of industries like energy, automotive and other forms of mobility. From the surface, this appears to be a good thing, limiting the use of crude oil and assisting in the reduction of carbon emissions. However, this doesn’t take into account the increased potential for these batteries to cause harm in the case that they malfunction or are destroyed in an accident.
While Li-ion batteries are generally considered to be safe and stable, with any technology, there is always the possibility of a malfunction or damage, which can result in the release of gasses and electrolytes such as hydrogen fluoride, phosphoryl fluoride and other combustion byproducts and organic solvents. These chemicals are possibly corrosive, toxic, and even flammable, with the potential to cause lasting harm to human life. However, the malfunction of these batteries does not result in widespread ecological damage, as is the case when carbon-based energy infrastructure malfunctions or experiences disasters, such as oil spills or enduring coal seam fires.
End of Life
Once li-ion batteries’ capacity and efficiency begin to fail, they are discarded and replaced in the traditional way that most batteries are, by being treated as waste and end up in dumpsites. While this seems like the logical step in disposing of any spent material, it also raises the question: are we simply trading out the carbon emissions from oil for solid waste? Unfortunately, this appears to be the case, with the volume of Li-ion batteries currently in landfill increasing at a worrying pace. In fact, analysts have stated that by the end of 2020, the annual quantities of lithium-ion batteries available for recycling will grow from approximately 150,000 tonnes per year in 2020 to over 3,700,000 tonnes per year in 2030. On a cumulative basis, this translates to over 15 million tonnes of lithium-ion batteries available for recycling by 2030. China alone will generate approximately half a million metric tons of spent Li-ion batteries in 2020, and that by 2030, this figure is set to reach 2 million metric tons of Li-ion waste per year.
Besides landfill, li-ion batteries have been predominantly moved around the world for re-use or partially recycle via thermal processing, in which the spent batteries are incinerated, resulting in typical crude resource recovery rates between 40 and 50 percent, with key elements like lithium being completely volatilized. Unfortunately, this method is unsustainable in the long-term, as it is energy-intensive, produces a significant amount of both solid and gas waste. Thus, this process will do little to satiate the growing demand for new Li-ion batteries necessary to sustain the transition to renewable energy and carbon-free transportation.
There is a gap between the promise of li-ion batteries as an environmentally-conscious solution to carbon-based energy and the reality of the situation that has inspired a number of companies to innovate new methods to transform li-ion battery to be a truly circular and sustainable product.
One such technique relies on a closed-loop system where spent batteries are sent to resource recovery centers where through a process of mechanical shredding and hydrometallurgical/ wet chemistry. This innovative process successfully recovers ≥95% of critical materials in li-ion batteries and return these materials back to the supply chain. This method completely changes the way in which li-ion batteries are treated at the end of their life cycle, potentially alleviating many of the negative impacts of raw material mining and production.
This closed-loop resource recovery method removes the need for such extensive resource mining, reduces the amount of waste released into the atmosphere or sent to landfill, minimizes the amount of global shipping needed to transport resources and other product components, preserves deposits of finite natural resources, and more. Essentially, this development of this resource recovery method means that Li-ion batteries’ similar negative effects to oil can be bypassed, which means people don’t need to be concerned about the amount of waste, or negative social impacts their batteries are generating.
While the negative impacts and finite nature of fossil fuels are widely understood, the positive impact oil has had on the world’s development, and forward progression should not be forgotten. Now, as battery prices continue to fall and are predicted to hit the lowest ever prices per kWh within the next decade, it makes sense that li-ion batteries and the components that make them are quickly becoming considered ‘the new oil.’ However, before li-ion batteries completely take the reins in providing for the worlds’ electricity needs, it’s up to innovators to optimize recycling processes to ensure that batteries don’t leave the same legacy of environmental destruction and social unrest as their predecessor.