EV batteries are made up of many lithium-ion cells. Lithium is light and it can store a lot of energy which is a great combination for an electric car. However, extracting lithium from the ground requires a lot of water, energy, and chemicals and a lot of the world’s lithium is found in places that are already very dry. There are additional chemicals like cobalt, nickel, manganese, and aluminum which have their own problems including human rights issues.
So these batteries are full of nasty materials. Aren’t we just trading one fossil fuel (oil) for these other limited resources? The difference is that when you burn gas, it’s gone. When you use up an EV battery, there’s still a future for it.
First, EV batteries might not be suitable for the high demands of an electric car anymore, but they might be plenty for a lower drain application such as providing backup power for your house.
Second, EV batteries are incredibly recyclable. Estimates vary but around 95% of the material in an EV battery (and in any lithium battery from your cell phone, power tools, etc.) can be reclaimed through recycling. Recycling also releases fewer greenhouse gases than mining new minerals.
The current challenge is that recycling is expensive, but today the raw materials are abundant, and mining can roughly keep up with the demand, but the economics will change in the future as materials are harder to find, the demand for new batteries increases, and more EV batteries are nearing the ends of their lives. Additionally, some of the recent economic incentives for US battery production can be applied to EV battery recycling as well.
So yes, EV batteries are bad for the environment, but we should be able to keep reusing the materials that are being mined. And just because this process is messy doesn’t mean it’s worse than what is happening with gasoline today. The process of extracting oil, refining it, and burning gas is plenty nasty but comparing the two is beyond the scope of this post.
If you want to see this in action, check out this short YouTube video walkthrough of a battery recycling plant in Arizona, or check out the links below it for more reading materials: