Lithium-ion batteries are expected to be the core of electric cars in the near future. So far, they power the electric grids, as well as household technology like smartphones and computers. With the growing popularity of electric cars, it’s expected that market for lithium-ion batteries will be $100 billion by 2025.
Unfortunately, Lithium isn’t a perfect solution. While electric cars are often thought of as a dream alternative to petrol and diesel, the batteries for electric cars come with their own environmental impacts.
How is lithium mined and processed?
Here, we’ll look at some of the most commonly asked questions around the production and disposal of lithium batteries.
Where does lithium-ion come from?
The main raw materials for lithium-ion, lithium and cobalt, come from the earth, but they take a lot of energy and water to extract. Lithium is difficult to extract as it’s typically found in trace amounts.
To typically harvest Lithium, brine is pumped out of the ground in salt deserts and into holding ponds. Once the water in these ponds evaporates, the residue is taken to be processed.
Alternatively, you can produce battery-grade lithium by exposing it to high temperatures. This method requires a lot of energy, and is used most in Australia and China.
Is lithium mining bad for the environment?
The environmental effects of lithium mining are similar to those of fracking, oil drilling, or coal mining.
The amount of water that it takes to produce lithium batteries is one of the main points of concern, as it takes up to half a million gallons of water to extract one tonne of lithium. In places with very little rainfall, like Chile, this means that lithium mining uses 65% of the area’s water.
Car lithium batteries be recycled?
Lithium batteries can be recycled, but it isn’t the simplest process due to how reactive Lithium is. This makes it possible for them to burst into flames. It might not the best idea for your household waste.
Take your lithium batteries to your nearest drop off location, and they’ll be collected in bulk. Trained high-voltage specialists then disassemble the batteries to see which cells can be reused, and which need recycling.
The future of lithium batteries
There is still progress to be made in terms of sustainability for lithium-ion batteries, and therefore electric cars. However, there is work being done to find more sustainable, safe, and accessible sources for the necessary materials.
While cobalt is an important element of creating batteries, it’s difficult to get hold of, as 70% of the element is found in one country. For this reason, there is currently ongoing research into replacing cobalt with iron, manganese, or other more available metals.
Furthermore, countries like Germany and the UK are piloting projects in which they filter lithium from beneath granite rock, which is a more sustainable method of lithium extraction.
The EU is also making progress with recycling and collecting lithium batteries, as the current requirement for used batteries to be collected is only 45%. The aim is for this to be raised to 70% by 2030, as well as making more lithium in new batteries to be sourced from recycled materials. This is targeted to be 4% by 2030, and 10% by 2035.
The danger with this requirement, however, is that there may not be enough pre-existing recycled material to source the lithium from. European manufacturers, therefore, may import recycled material, leaving a large carbon footprint in doing so.
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While lithium batteries could still be improved in terms of their sustainability and environmental impact, they’re still recognised as a more environmentally friendly alternative to petrol or diesel engines.
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