EV Batteries

Batteries are crucial to shifting away from fossil fuels, but there are problems that must be addressed, including fires, cobalt, and disposal. EV battery fires are in the news because they’re a new phenomenon—not because they’re common. In Sweden, for example, between 2018 and 2022, EVs had 0.4% of vehicle fires in a year, hybrids had 1.5%, and gas and diesel cars had the other 98.1%.[1] 

Lithium-ion battery packs used in e-bikes, EVs and hybrid vehicles are made up of cells that contain a flammable liquid electrolyte. In the event of a puncture (as in a car crash) or a problem from a defect, a malfunction, or using uncertified aftermarket chargers, there is a risk of fire, explosion, releasing toxic gases, or re-ignition.[2] Firefighters are scrambling to learn how to deal with these new hazards.

Decreasing Dependence on Cobalt

Unfortunately, many batteries contain cobalt. About 70% of cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s a beautiful blue mineral that is carcinogenic, poisonous to touch and breathe, often adjacent to radioactive uranium, and mined by cutting down the very forests we need to absorb carbon. Worse, 15-20% of it is mined “artisanally,” a euphemism for being dug by children and adults by hand or with whatever tools they can find.

According to Amnesty International, the big tech and EV companies, Apple, Tesla, Google, Microsoft, Samsung, etc., all buy cobalt from the DRC. While they may claim not to participate in the artisanal supply chain, the industrial operations that they do source from all purchase the artisanal supply and mix it right into their industrial production.[3]

Cobalt reserves are finite, the supply chain is already unreliable, and production is not presently carbon neutral. Scientists are continually exploring which combinations of chemicals and minerals make the safest, longest-lasting, and cheapest batteries, and eliminating cobalt actually seems to help.[4] 

Existing cobalt EV batteries are already being made to use less and less cobalt, and new recycling innovations are increasing the amount of cobalt that can be recovered up to 90%.[5] Lithium-Iron-Phosphate batteries (LFP), with the addition of manganese, can match the range of cobalt battery EVs with no compromises, at a significantly cheaper cost and with a much more secure supply chain.[6]

According to the USGS mineral commodity summaries from 2023, there is much more lithium available in the world, with a global reserve of 26 million tons. And there is even more manganese: 1.7 billion tons.[7] These types of batteries are already being adopted more widely by EV manufacturers and have the potential to significantly decrease demand for cobalt.[8]

Even though lithium is more sustainable in terms of reserves, it has the potential to have similar human rights failures as cobalt mining.[9] We have to focus on and enforce sustainable practices as this infrastructure develops, in terms of both emissions and labor.

Battery Recycling

With the volume of used-up EV batteries expected to grow from 11.3 GWh in 2022 to 138 GWh in 2030, our global capacity for battery recycling will need to grow significantly.[10] One advantage: making nickel-based lithium-ion batteries from recycled materials instead of standard materials decreases production emissions by about 28%.[11]

China leads the way in EV battery recycling, with around 80% of global recycling capacity. The EU and US have recently placed production incentives on their regions to keep batteries at home.[12],[13] The US Inflation Reduction Act allows EV batteries recycled within the U.S. to be counted as eligible for domestic production incentives even if the original battery was imported from elsewhere.[14] This incentive might increase domestic recycling, but it is also  intended to challenge China’s primary role in global EV recycling instead of moving towards global cooperation for a net-zero future.

Read more about China and the Inflation Reduction act here.

[1]Evans, S. (2023, July 11). You’re Wrong About EV Fires. MotorTrend; Motor Trend Group. https://www.motortrend.com/features/you-are-wrong-about-ev-fires/, Bergholm, U. (2023). Sammanställning av bränder i elfordon och eltransportmedel år 2018–2022. Myndigheten för samhällsskydd och beredskap. https://rib.msb.se/filer/pdf/29438.pdf

[2] Quraishi, A.-H., et al. (2023, August 15). Lithium-ion battery fires from electric cars, bikes and scooters are on the rise. Are firefighters ready?. CBS News. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/lithium-ion-battery-fires-electric-cars-bikes-scooters-firefighters/

[3] Democracy Now. (2023, July 13). “Cobalt Red”: Smartphones & Electric Cars Rely on Toxic Mineral Mined in Congo by Children. Democracy Now! https://www.democracynow.org/2023/7/13/cobalt_red_kara

[4] Bell, B. (2022, September 21). Cobalt-free Cathode Could Lead to Safer, Longer-lasting Batteries for Electric Vehicles. Brookhaven National Laboratory. https://www.bnl.gov/newsroom/news.php?a=120847

[5] Tran, M. K., Rodrigues, M.-T. F., Kato, K., Babu, G., & Ajayan, P. M. (2019). Deep eutectic solvents for cathode recycling of Li-ion batteries. Nature Energy, 4(4), Art. 4. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41560-019-0368-4

[6] Lienert, P. (2023, June 23). For EV batteries, lithium iron phosphate narrows the gap with nickel, cobalt. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/business/autos-transportation/ev-batteries-lithium-iron-phosphate-narrows-gap-with-nickel-cobalt-2023-06-22/

[7] Statista. (2023, July 19). World manganese reserves 2010-2022https://www.statista.com/statistics/247609/world-manganese-reserves/

[8] IEA. Trends in batteries – Global EV Outlook 2023 – Analysis. (2023). Retrieved August 30, 2023, from https://www.iea.org/reports/global-ev-outlook-2023/trends-in-batteries

[9] Amnesty International. Amnesty challenges industry leaders to clean up their batteries. (2019, March 21). https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/press-release/2019/03/amnesty-challenges-industry-leaders-to-clean-up-their-batteries/

[10] Carey, N., Lienert, P., & Waldersee, V. (2023, July 21). Dead EV batteries turn to gold with US incentives. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/business/autos-transportation/dead-ev-batteries-turn-gold-with-us-incentives-2023-07-21/

[11] Breiter, A., Schuldt, T., Linder, M., Siccardo, G., & Vekić, N. (2023, March 13). Battery recycling takes the driver’s seat | McKinsey. McKinsey & Company. https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/automotive-and-assembly/our-insights/battery-recycling-takes-the-drivers-seat#/ 

[12] Burton, M., & Biesheuvel, T. (2022, September 1). The Next Big Battery Material Squeeze Is Old Batteries. Bloomberg.com. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-09-01/the-next-big-battery-material-squeeze-is-old-batteries#xj4y7vzkg

[13] Carey, N., Lienert, P., & Waldersee, V. (2023, July 21). Dead EV batteries turn to gold with US incentives. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/business/autos-transportation/dead-ev-batteries-turn-gold-with-us-incentives-2023-07-21/

[14] Carey, N., Lienert, P., & Waldersee, V. (2023, July 21). Dead EV batteries turn to gold with US incentives. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/business/autos-transportation/dead-ev-batteries-turn-gold-with-us-incentives-2023-07-21/