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Why electric vehicle batteries are good and bad for the environment

The large-scale production of batteries for electric vehicles diminishes the emission reductions achieved by driving electric vehicles. Industrial ecologist Chengjian Xu discusses the challenges surrounding these batteries and the opportunities he sees.

Electric vehicle batteries (EV batteries) are usually made from critical materials such as lithium, cobalt and nickel. The question is whether there are enough of these materials to meet our needs. And whether those materials can be extracted in a sustainable way. ‘The material needed for a battery depends greatly on the battery chemistry,’ says industrial ecologist Xu. ‘Lithium nickel cobalt manganese oxide (NCM) batteries are now preferred by EV manufacturers because of their high performance in terms of specific energy.’

Batteries with less-critical materials

But according to Xu, batteries made with less-critical materials do exist: lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries, for example. Although LFP batteries have slightly lower specific energy, they have a longer cycling lifespan. ‘If we use LFP, the batteries will have a longer lifetime, fewer batteries will need to be produced and they will have a lower environmental impact,’ says Xu.

Labs are also developing new batteries that are not lithium-based, unlike most batteries now. Xu: ‘These batteries, such as sodium-ion and aluminium-ion ones, use abundant elements and perform well in the lab. They may be responsible for a breakthrough in the future and mean that the demand for batteries is no longer dependent on lithium, cobalt, and nickel.'

New manufacturing processes that use renewable electricity instead of fossil fuels can make battery production more environmentally friendly.

Production with fewer greenhouse gas emissions

These new types of batteries could ensure that fewer greenhouse gases are released in the production chain of batteries for electric vehicles. ‘Battery production is very complicated from an industrial point of view,’ says Xu. ‘It requires a lot of materials, not just critical materials. And it takes a lot of energy to make the batteries, which creates a lot of environmental pollution with the current energy mix.’ New manufacturing processes that use renewable electricity instead of fossil fuels can make battery production more environmentally friendly.

Energy storage

Xu sees other benefits of EV batteries besides electric vehicles. ‘The batteries can serve as storage when there is a surplus of solar and wind energy and feed this energy back into the electricity system when there is a shortage.’ This is important because in the future much of electricity production will come from renewable sources. Xu’s research shows that electric car batteries will be able to meet the demand for the short-term storage of renewable energy as early as 2030. This will mean batteries will help contribute to a future with fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

Text: Dagmar Aarts
Photo: Pixabay

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