Lithium-ion batteries: the environmental costs of feeding our ever growing dependance on technology

With the increasing adverse effects of climate change and the need to switch to sustainable living, renewable energy has become more important, along with the need for a way to store this energy. One of the major problems with renewable technology such as wind and solar is that they are intermittent, for example, overcast days result in reduced energy output from solar power and particularly windy days could generate excess power. Batteries make it possible to store any captured excess energy until it’s required at another point in time when energy generation is at a reduced capacity. Lithium-ion batteries, which emerged in the 1990s, have steadily become the most widely used battery for this due to their high energy density. The high energy density enables portable technology to operate for long periods between charges. A market research report by Technavio stated the global lithium-ion battery market will grow by EUR 44.42 billion over the next four years. However, lithium-ion batteries are not a perfect solution to portable and storable energy as they have significant impacts on the environment. These environmental problems will become ever more pressing with our increasing consumption of smart technology, electric vehicles, and renewable energy. 

Global Lithium Demand Forecast for 2020 – 2025

Environmental damage from lithium-ion batteries has mainly been reported in the extraction of its raw materials and their disposal. Lithium mining is prevalent in Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile, leading to its name the “lithium triangle’, where it is highly concentrated and accessible. The extraction of the mineral requires drilling a hole into salt flats. Brine containing lithium and other valuable metals is pumped out of the salt flats and left to evaporate before filtration. This technique is extremely water-intensive; a study has estimated that half a million gallons of water is required to produce one ton of lithium. This reduction in water availability affects local farmers and creates conflicts in these countries where water is already scarce from the dry climate. Another major environmental impact during the extraction process is pollution. In 2009 and 2016, a toxic chemical leak occurred in the Ganzizhou Rongda lithium mine in China, polluting the Liqi river which led to the mass death of fish populations and contamination of drinking water sources of nearby communities.

Lithium mine in Atacama Desert, Chile

There are different types of lithium-ion batteries however, due to their high energy density, the most common batteries are lithium-cobalt. Seventy percent of the world’s cobalt is mined from The Democratic Republic of Congo where an increasing portion is extracted by hand; often many of these workers are children. The mining of cobalt has negative effects on the environment including crop contamination, water pollution, and soil infertility. Furthermore, high doses of cobalt which are found in the mines, have adverse effects on human health including heart problems and impaired hearing and sight. 

Whilst lithium-ion batteries are advantageous due to their long lifespan, they are still subject to aging and eventually need to be disposed of. Recycling is the most environmentally-friendly way to dispose of batteries as it reduces greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption, and allows natural resources to be recovered which reduces the need for virgin material. From a global perspective, the recycling of lithium-ion batteries greatly differs between continents. A report by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) from 2018 revealed only 2% of annual lithium battery waste is recycled in Australia. On the other hand, a report by Eurostat in 2016 estimated 43.8% of portable batteries sold in the EU were collected for recycling. This disparity could partly be explained by the differences and timing of regulations. The EU established the Batteries Directive in 2006 which regulates the disposal and manufacturing of batteries, whereas Australia launched the Battery Stewardship Council in 2018 which aims to create a scheme to increase the collection and recycling batteries. Furthermore, recycling lithium-ion batteries is a complex process; current methods are only able to recycle 50% of the material from the batteries. Fortum, a Finnish energy research company, achieved an 80% recycling rate last year which is a promising step to making lithium-ion batteries more sustainable. 

So what does the future look like for lithium-ion batteries if we want to protect our environment? Large tech companies including Tesla and Panasonic are working towards a zero cobalt battery and have already managed to reduce their dependence on cobalt by 60% since 2012. Although this would only solve part of the problem of these batteries. Researchers are working on a variety of potential alternatives that use less toxic materials however, finding a more sustainable battery is a complex issue as every solution has its limitations. For example, a new battery may be more sustainable than lithium batteries but less energy-dense. The overall environmental cost of this battery could be worse than lithium as higher quantities would be necessary to achieve the same energy requirement, meaning an increase in CO2 emissions from transportation and packaging. The EU’s Battery Directive and Fortum’s recycling process appears to be a promising path to reducing the environmental impacts as there would be less need to mine for raw materials; however other regions of the world must follow suit for this to be effective. As for now, it appears lithium-ion batteries will continue to dominate the consumer electronic market, at least for the next decade.

4 thoughts on “Lithium-ion batteries: the environmental costs of feeding our ever growing dependance on technology

  1. Hi Rayne,

    Thank you for your blog post. I found the article really interesting. Especially since I am currently writing my capstone on the role of battery storage in urban energy transitions. I agree with you that the current systems’ impact on the environment is unacceptable and must change swiftly in order to reduce further far stretching damage.

    Perhaps these recycling schemes are able to offer a (be it temporary) solution to the mining aspect of lithium. I am just wondering whether these processes are viable when it comes to the energy that is needed to complete the process. Considering the fact that these batteries have a relatively long life span, by how long do these recycling processes extend these batteries? In other words, are the recycled batteries just as good as new batteries?

    Another aspect I was thinking about is the cobalt-free promise made by different companies. It would be very interesting to see if batteries made by these companies offer an alternative to the cobalt batteries and how much certain impacts would be reduced.

    Do you think the Battery directive is the way forward in order to decrease environmental impacts, or do you see another avenue through which we can find alternatives?

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  2. Hello Tomas, thank you for commenting. As far as I am aware, up until recently recycled batteries had a lower performance than new batteries made with mined materials. However, a project by Worcester Polytechnic Institute published a paper last year showing they produced a battery from recycled materials with comparable performances and rate capability to new batteries.

    Whilst looking into Tesla’s reduction of cobalt in their batteries, there was an announcement this year that they may switch to lithium iron phosphate batteries. Iron is more sustainable than cobalt as it is non-toxic, commonly available, and requires less energy to mine and process. I agree it would be interesting to see to what extent this would reduce the environmental impact of lithium batteries.

    In regards to your other question, I don’t think the Battery Directive is solely the way forward to decrease environmental impacts but instead to create a circular economy for these batteries (which includes recycling).

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  3. Hi Rayne,

    Thank you for your article. The question of future sustainable batteries is such a significant one! I am very interested in how this will develop over the coming years.

    I want to address a slightly different topic, which is the safety of battery-powered cars. From what I know, batteries get really warm. The 7.000 batteries in a Tesla car are thus at risk of catching fire in case of a car crash. What is your opinion regarding the safety of these cars? Do you think that something needs to be improved? Or do you think that this new zero cobalt battery not only reduces the environmental hazards, but also reduces fire risk?

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  4. Hi Lisa,

    Thanks for commenting. I read that Tesla dealt with this issue by updating the software to limit the charging capacity to 80%. This of course this led to a lot of complaints by customers. But I think it goes to show that we still have a lot to learn about how we can create safe EV’s that are not overly limited by their range as they need to be competitive against fossil fuel vehicles. I think this event also highlights the struggle we have between successfully implementing sustainable products from small to larger scales, and the increasing immediacy to take action against climate change. In this case, I think that there should have been more testing done on the cars before their release, and more transparency towards their customers after the problem was revealed. In regards to your last question, as far as I know, it’s not the material of the cathode that can lead to lithium ion batteries exploding but design flaws. Therefore, I don’t think zero cobalt battery would reduce fire risk.

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