Introduction – Batteries and Carbon Cost
Electric cars are becoming more popular, but there is one big downside to their increasing popularity: electric car battery pollution. Electric car batteries are one of the most important components of an electric car. They provide the power that is necessary to operate the car. However, they also have the potential to pollute the environment. By pollution, we’re fairly specific to say that it includes both carbon emissions and inadvertent release of waste toxins.
What Is Electric Car Battery Pollution?
Electric cars are becoming increasingly popular as consumers look for more eco-friendly transportation options. However, electric cars are not without their drawbacks. One major concern is the carbon emissions created by manufacturing the batteries that power these vehicles.
The waste product from manufacturing can be divided into two parts: 1) carbon emissions from manufacturing, 2) toxin pollutants from extraction and processing of battery components. The process of mining and refining the materials needed for batteries is extremely energy-intensive and will release carbon dioxide equivalents into the air and water.
Disposing of old batteries can be difficult and expensive. As a result, battery pollution is a significant environmental issue that needs to be addressed. Let’s consider both and whether they are truly a problem.
1) Carbon emissions: life cycle-wise, electric car emissions are lower than gasoline cars
First, regarding carbon emissions from manufacturing, it turns out even if you factor that in, over the lifetime of the car, electrical cars in almost all countries (except those with the most carbon intensive grids) beat out gasoline cars in terms of emissions.
We cover the analysis here and here. This analysis is valid as long as the electric car housing the battery is used sufficiently long, e.g. more than 60,000 miles. Before that point, there’s insufficient time to make up for the sunk higher carbon emissions cost of manufacturing the batteries.
After that point, every electric car mile driven is equivalent to carbon saved compared to a gasoline, internal combustion engine mile. Second, regarding toxin pollutants from mining, this is indeed a serious problem. Mining generates huge amounts of waste material which leaves mining sites highly contaminated.
2) Toxin pollutants: added environmental cost
This is what causes electric car battery pollution. When these batteries are disposed in landfills, the chemicals leach into the ground and contaminate groundwater. In addition, when the batteries are incinerated, the toxins are released into the air.
This is a serious issue because it can impact both human health and the environment. Finally, the raw materials are initially mined from ores in the ground. All mining activities carry a cost and risk in terms of production pollutants because of the scale, unpredictability of mining.
We recommend that to address the pollutant problem, it is important to recycle electric car batteries as much as possible to reduce the impact of landfill pollutants and virgin material production pollutants . This will help to prevent toxic chemicals from entering the environment and will also reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills.
A complication arises if we consider cleaning up the toxins will induce a secondary carbon cost due to the energy use. However analyzing that is beyond the scope of this article.
EV Car Battery Recycling Is Taking Off
For example Tesla has a battery recycling program. Such a program lowers the impact by cycling materials back into the production, and obviates the costs of extracting more raw materials. This type of cycling reduces emissions, though by how much depends in detail on the processes themselves. The upside is that this environmental cost is not a carbon emissions cost and doesn’t increase planet warming gases.
Remarkably, well-funded start-ups are getting into the battery recycling business. Redwood Materials stands out in particular. Redwood Materials, founded by former Tesla CTO JB Straubel, is a promising startup playing a significant role in the evolving landscape of electric vehicle (EV) batteries. The company is tackling a critical challenge in the EV industry: battery recycling and supply chain sustainability.
Redwood’s focus is on recycling end-of-life batteries to extract valuable materials such as lithium, cobalt, and nickel, which can be used to manufacture new batteries. This not only helps mitigate the environmental impact of battery disposal but also reduces dependency on mining and can contribute to lowering the overall cost of EV batteries. As battery costs are a significant portion of the total cost of EVs, companies like Redwood Materials could play an essential role in making electric vehicles more affordable, accelerating the shift towards sustainable transportation.
What Are The Types Of Electric Car Batteries?
Electric car batteries come in many different shapes and sizes, but there are three main types of batteries that are most commonly used in electric vehicles: nickel-metal hydride, lithium-ion, and lead-acid.
These batteries power the vast majority of electric vehicles on the road today. They can store a large amount of energy in a tiny volume while still being relatively light. Lithium-ion batteries are also less likely to suffer from “memory effects,” which can decrease the capacity of a battery over time. Unfortunately these batteries haven’t been in our economy at such scale for as long a time.
The recycling of lithium-ion batteries is far behind that of lead, estimated at 5%. Having the right infrastructure in place and consumer awareness in the near future will be critical to our reuse of lithium. The mining of lithium is very energy intensive and like all resource extraction activities imposes a production pollutant cost.
Nickel-Metal Hydride Batteries
They are similar to lithium-ion batteries in terms of weight and energy density. However, they are not as susceptible to “memory effects” and they can be recycled more easily than lithium-ion batteries. These batteries were popular in the earlier generation of electric cars and in narrow sectors now. To give you a sense of what this technology is facing, take a look at this article about Toyota “not conceding the nickel-metal battery technology“. Basically its much less popular now with a poorer ecosystem of production and use and recycling and disposal.
They are the least popular type of battery for electric cars. They are heavy and have a low energy density, which means they require a large space to store a relatively small amount of energy. Lead-acid batteries are also more likely to suffer from “memory effects” and they cannot be recycled as easily as other types of batteries.
The one advantage of lead acid batteries, having been part of the combustion engine system for decades, even centuries, is that the recycling penetration is much higher. Lead acid batteries are estimated to be 99% recycled. No doubt public awareness of the dangers of lead leaching into our groundwater supplies and posing a danger to kids, who are most sensitive to lead, has really moved us toward treating the batteries carefully.
Other Battery Types – Lithium Iron Phosphate, Lithium Nickel Manganese Cobalt, Lithium Nickel Cobalt Aluminum
These are not the only types of battery composition. Tesla itself has experimented with multiple technologies including mixed metal batteries like lithium iron phosphate (LFP), lithium nickel manganese cobalt (NMC) and lithium nickel cobalt aluminium oxide (NCA).
Recently Tesla announced that they would be switching to LFP for cars manufactured outside as well as inside China because it turns out the batteries are cheaper and safer, and risk less degradation risk long-term with frequent 100% charging. As usual, those benefits are in tension with LFPs having lower energy density and therefore more engineering challenges to get bigger batteries into the car.
Those solutions turn out to be engineering in nature too, as electric car designers are thinking about incorporating the batteries into the car body itself, not just its base as Tesla does.
What Is The Lifespan Of An Electric Car Battery?
The lifespan of an electric car battery is determined by several factors, including the type of battery, the climate, and how the vehicle is driven. Most electric car batteries are designed to last for around 100,000 miles.
However, some batteries may need to be replaced after as little as 50,000 miles, while others may last for 150,000 miles or more. For example Tesla has always maintained under different scenarios that their batteries will last 150,000 to 300,000 miles, which is comfortably in the range of average and long-life span cars based on statistics from the NHTSA (for example from one of their reports on average vehicle mileage).
Lithium-ion batteries, for example, typically last for about 10 years, while lead-acid batteries may only last for five years. The hot weather can also shorten the lifespan of a battery, as extreme heat can cause the battery to degrade faster.
How a vehicle is driven also affects the lifespan of its battery. Frequent stop-and-go driving, for example, can put a strain on the battery and shorten its lifespan. With proper care and maintenance, however, an electric car battery can last for many years.
Tips for Efficiently Disposing of Electric Vehicle Batteries After Use
When it comes to electric car batteries, there are a few things you need to know to dispose of them properly. Here are some steps you need to follow:
1. Find out if there are any recycling programs in your area that accept electric car batteries. If there are, take advantage of them! This is the best way to ensure that your battery is properly disposed of.
2. If there are no recycling programs in your area, then you’ll need to find a reputable company that specializes in disposing of electric car batteries. Make sure to do your research and choose a company that has a good reputation.
3. Once you’ve found a company that you’re comfortable with, schedule a time for them to pick up your battery. Be sure to have all the necessary paperwork ready so that the process goes smoothly.
4. When the company arrives, they will typically give you instructions on how to properly package the battery for shipping. Follow their instructions carefully so that the battery is protected during transit.
5. Once the battery has been shipped, it’s important to keep track of its progress. This way, you can be sure that it has arrived at its destination and been properly disposed of.
Environmental Costs Of Not Recycling Electric Car Batteries
Many batteries are not being recycled properly, which can have several environmental consequences. Here are some of the most significant environmental costs of not recycling electric car batteries:
1. Pollution: Leaded acid batteries release lead and other pollutants into the environment when they are not recycled properly. This can contaminate soil and water resources, and potentially lead to health problems in people and animals.
2. Resource depletion: Electric car batteries contain valuable materials like cobalt, lithium, and manganese. When these materials are not properly recycled, they can be lost forever. This not only wastes resources but also requires mining operations to extract more of these materials from the Earth, which can lead to further environmental damage.
3. GHG emissions: The production of electric car batteries is energy-intensive, and emits a significant amount of greenhouse gases (GHGs). If batteries are not recycled properly, extra GHGs are released into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. Overall as we showed above the life cycle carbon emissions of an electric car from manufacturing to end-of-life remains lower than that of a gasoline car. This is true as long as the electrical grid has an energy source mix that is lower carbon intensity than that of a gasoline engine, on a per passenger kilometer traveled basis.
4. Water contamination: Improper recycling of electric car batteries can lead to water contamination from hazardous chemicals like lead and cadmium. This can damage local ecosystems and potentially harm public health.
5. Soil contamination: Soil contamination can occur when hazardous chemicals from electric car batteries leach into the ground. This can contaminate food crops and potentially impact human health.
Redwood Materials – A New Start-Up Looking To Recycle Batteries On Massive Scale
On a positive note, the innovation landscape is reacting appropriately to this problem. Redwood Materials is a battery-recycling startup founded in 2017 by JB Straubel, former Tesla CTO and co-founder. The company focuses on recycling end-of-life electric vehicle (EV) batteries and automotive production scrap to produce raw materials and products used in the creation of new EV battery cells, including anode copper foil and cathode-active materials.
Redwood Materials is positively impacting the battery waste problem by recycling end-of-life electric vehicle (EV) batteries. The company recovers valuable materials like lithium, nickel, and cobalt, reducing waste and the need for new mining. By using these materials to create new EV battery cells, Redwood Materials is fostering a circular economy, minimizing environmental impact and promoting local supply chains.
This innovative approach not only addresses the growing issue of battery waste but also promotes sustainability and resilience in the EV industry. Moreover, it could potentially influence more robust regulation around battery disposal and recycling, driving long-term systemic change.
As we continue to see an increase in the number of electric cars on the road, it’s important to consider the potential pollution from their batteries. While electric car battery pollution is a very real concern, some steps can be taken to mitigate it.
It’s important to remember that this is only a problem if they’re not properly disposed of. With the right precautions, we can ensure that electric car batteries don’t cause any more damage to our planet.