The mobility revolution

It’s ironic that delivering the bright, clean future promised by electric vehicles (EVs), will mean coming up with solutions to tackle environmental and ethical issues surrounding battery production.

Lithium-ion batteries are the beating heart of every EV. A cocktail of minerals is required to make these: lithium, cobalt, graphite and nickel. By their nature, minerals are finite resources, and deposits are often in places with geographical, political and social challenges. Alongside this, demand for these minerals is turbo-charged, with many commodity experts predicting a supply crunch towards the end of the decade.

So there is a dual challenge for those with an interest in the EV industry. First, how can these minerals be responsibly sourced in sufficient quantities; and, second, how can recycling efforts be developed to ensure the most is made of finite resources, while at the same time mitigating environmental risk?

On the first point, EV producers, including household names such as BMW are already boosting transparency on their supply chains, with manufacturers and mining companies using blockchain technology to support traceability of mineral origination. Alongside issues associated with ethical sourcing of minerals sits the carbon intensity of the production process. Currently, China dominates battery production, but relies heavily on coal-fired power. Moves to build battery industries closer to clusters of vehicle manufacturing sites are underway, with one example in Europe being the Swedish battery developer, Northvolt, whose ambition is “to build the greenest battery in the world”, and is joining forces with continental EV manufacturers.

A number of moves are underway to tackle the ethical and sustainable production of batteries, but the anticipated supply crunch of critical minerals later this decade is also a major challenge to scaling EV production. Longer term, substitutes for cobalt and lithium may come to the fore: aluminium is one possibility and hydrogen powered cars have long been mooted, but both are not currently mature, mass-produced technologies. There is a need to develop a recycling approach that gets the most out of these precious, scarce minerals.

By some estimates, as little as 5% of lithium-ion batteries are currently recycled, but there are signs that this will change. Some car companies are taking an early lead on recycling, with Tesla planning to stop outsourcing recycling altogether. There are many examples of ‘second-use’ for EV batteries in energy storage applications as well. Promising signs, but as it stands, better processes are urgently needed to improve the environmental and economic viability of recycling, which is highly dependent on cobalt content.

A good start would be standardising battery assembly and composition which makes disassembly easier. Better sorting technologies to recover the valuable mineral materials is critical, alongside intelligent automation of batteries for recycling, remanufacture and reuse. What’s clear is that the scarcity of critical battery minerals provides a strong economic incentive for governments, manufacturers and minerals producers to solve the recycling puzzle.

David Tomasi
Global Leader, Energy, Mining and Renewables
 
The Moore Energy, Mining and Renewables team can advise clients on responsible sourcing, supply chain development and process automation.

Please contact David Tomasi at: david.tomasi@moorestephens.com.au
 

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