Life Cycle Assessment of Lithium-Ion Battery Packs

Life Cycle Assessment of Lithium-Ion Battery Packs

By Alessandro Tagliabue – Sustainability Consultant

 Introduction

  1. The rise in popularity of lithium-ion batteries of the US auto industry and their many uses

The technology behind lithium-ion batteries is roughly one hundred years old[1], however it has become more readily available within the past few decades. Today, lithium ion batteries are used in many different sectors including medical devices, toys, lighting, personal computers, transport vehicles among many others.

  1. Electric vehicle batteries

There are two kinds of electric vehicles available to us now[2]:

  • All-electric vehicles (AEVs)
  • Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs)

Both kinds of these EVs can be refueled from an electric power source that is not on board the vehicle. Although similar to PHEVs, hybrid electric vehicles are different because the batteries present in them supplement the internal combustion engine, but lack the ability to be plugged in. AEVs like the Nissan Leaf typically have a range of 80 to 100 miles, while other more expensive models, like the Tesla Model S, have a range of 250 to 300 miles in one charge. Depending on the charger available to the drivers, charging times range from a minimum of 30 minutes to over a day.

PHEVs tend to be a better choice if the limited range of an AEV is not enough. PHEVs tend to have a shorter range on their electric motor of about 40 miles but will switch to a normal car engine that runs on gasoline when the electricity is depleted. Some examples of these vehicles are the Toyota Prius Prime and the Chevrolet Volt. The advantage of PHEVs is that they can use both electricity and gasoline to be driven. They also consume much less fuel and produce fewer emissions.

  1. Smartphone/Portable device batteries

Lithium-ion batteries are generally lightweight and because of their high-power density, they provide power to an immeasurable number of devices in our daily lives. Some of the more common devices include our smartphones, our tablets, and our laptops. Other devices include drills, flashlights, digital cameras, video game consoles among others[3].

  • Grid batteries

In recent years, home energy storage has risen in popularity all around the world. The purpose of home energy storage is to store electricity inside the house and use it whenever needed, like during a blackout. Home energy storage ideally works in conjunction with solar panels to store renewable electricity. One example of these products that is available to the public is the Tesla Powerwall[4].

 

  1. Purpose
  1. To better understand the social and environmental impacts of lithium ion batteries

As the popularity of lithium-ion batteries has risen exponentially in the last 15 years, it is important to investigate the environmental impact that this technology has on the surrounding environment. The way the batteries are both sourced and used in technology are important factors in determining the effects they have on the environment. The positive and negative impacts of electric vehicles to combustion engine vehicles over their lifetimes will also be analyzed. Finally, the policies regarding lithium ion battery manufacturing and disposal will be reviewed, as these are equally as important as the batteries’ use.

 

  1. Literature Review
  1. Scientific aspect

The raw materials that are needed to create lithium ion batteries include copper, nickel, aluminum, and cobalt. These various materials then make up the cathode and anode active parts, electrolytes, separator, battery grade lithium and packaging materials[5]. Other types of lithium ion batteries may require additional materials; however, these materials are generally standard across battery types. The basic mechanics of the battery involve the anode and the cathode materials, which store the lithium, and are separated by a separator. Electrolytes carry positively charged lithium ions to and from the anode and the cathode through the separator, which help to charge and discharge the battery[6].

  1. Environmental aspect

Lithium ion batteries are lauded for their effectiveness as a battery. They are very energy dense, meaning they can pack a large amount of chemical energy in a small space, which makes them compact and light portable energy sources. They also have near perfect efficiency when converting stored chemical energy to electrical energy during use. They are also rechargeable.[7] All of these factors contribute to lithium ion batteries being the most efficient and space-effective batteries currently developed. Through the lifespan of a lithium ion battery, they are nearly as effective as if what they were powering were hard-wired into the electrical grid, which is about as environmentally sound as possible for portable energy sources.

Most of the environmental impacts of lithium ion batteries does not come from their use, as they just mirror the impacts of the energy source that is used to charge them. Instead, lithium ion batteries have a dramatic environmental toll in their production and disposal because of mining for metals. Lithium ion batteries currently require lithium, cobalt, nickel, copper, and aluminum in their production, each of which has different impacts on the environment.[8]

Lithium is the most extensively mined metal in the creation of lithium ion batteries. 87% of all lithium is extracted from lithium-saturated brine in Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia. As far as metal extraction is concerned, lithium extraction from brine has limited impacts. Mines pump millions of gallons of subsurface brine to the surface to sit in standing pools where the water is evaporated, and lithium salts can be extracted. The process does not generate large amounts of emissions but is massively space intensive as it takes over miles of landscapes, is very chemical intensive, and creates large amounts of waste. More importantly, lithium extraction from brine damages the aquifer recharge capacity of subsurface waters. Lithium extraction occurs in predominantly arid areas, so water use is the largest environmental issue associated with this method of lithium extraction. The other 13% of lithium mining is the result of mineral extraction. Australia is the primary location for this type of lithium mining with large deposits embedded in rock. This method of lithium mining takes the form of “open pit” mining which far more energy intensive, physically scarring, and produces more emissions and particulate matter than lithium extraction from brine. Mined materials are sent to China to finish the extraction process.[9] As demand for lithium grows, mineral extraction of lithium will expand to supplement what can be extracted from brine on an annual basis.

The most detrimental environmental impacts of lithium ion battery production are not due to lithium mining, however, but mining for cobalt, nickel, and copper. Nickel and copper are very similar in their extraction and refining process, as they both are extracted from open-pit mines with mineral deposits and refined through a smelting process. Both produce carcinogenic dust and potent greenhouse gasses emissions in the mining process and create dramatic air and water pollution and waste production in the refining process. Most of these mining processes occur in Australia, Canada, Indonesia, Russia, and the Philippines.[10] Cobalt mining, which is less systematic, creates less emissions and waste that would make its environmental impact appear smaller as an industry, but cobalt mining is associated with extreme impacts on local environments. Mining waste still regularly pollutes drinking waters and high levels of particulate matter lead to respiratory issues for those working in mining centers and around them. 60% of global cobalt production occurs in the Democratic Republic of the Congo with most of the mining done by people working on their own and by hand. The work is dangerous as the mining tunnels built are not structurally sound and regularly collapse. Environmentally, high levels of radiation have been observed at cobalt mining centers. Cobalt is toxic and leads to birth defects ranging from miscarriages to physical deformities to blindness.[11] Metal mining to extract the supplementary materials required for lithium ion battery production is the bulk of environmental degradation caused by lithium ion use.

Lithium ion batteries can be recycled to recover the metals used in their production. Unfortunately, this is not a single-stream process and is more expensive than alternative forms of disposal. The most common form of disposal for lithium ion batteries is incineration, which has clear ramifications of air pollution. The largest environmental impact of lithium ion battery disposal, however, is the impact of not recovering the metals in the battery and having to mine more materials to build its replacement.[12] Due to the standard for the industry being to avoid recycling, the most environmentally damaging aspect of the life cycle of a lithium ion battery is not mitigated in any way.

  1. Policies relevant to lithium ion battery manufacturing and disposal

Lithium ion batteries can be recycled; however, they cannot be recycled in single stream recycling, which refers to recycling where all kinds of recyclable items go into. Lithium ion batteries cannot be disposed of in general trash cans either. This is due to the pressure or heat from inside a trash can or recycling truck which can encourage the batteries to spark and lead to fire, because of the electrolytes[13]. Correct disposal of lithium ion batteries is key to preventing fires and other environmental and health risks. This is not just true for the disposal of batteries, but also for objects such as laptops, phones, and digital cameras, and that contain these batteries. New versions with upgrades of technology are released at least every year, meaning that an increase in electronics pose an increased threat of improper disposal of lithium ion batteries.

There are currently no U.S. federal laws on the proper disposal of lithium ion batteries, however certain states such as California, Texas and Virginia have state battery recycling requirements. In states such as Iowa, Florida and New York, battery producers are required to offer or fund battery recycling. Finally, in almost half of the 50 states, such as Colorado, Georgia and Massachusetts, there are no battery recycling requirements[14]. Unfortunately, like most products that can be recycled, it is more cost effective for companies to incinerate the batteries as opposed to recycle them[15]. In terms of lithium ion batteries used in electric and hybrid cars, some car companies such as Nissan have a program to recycle used or damaged car battery packs[16]. These companies will either replace damaged areas and resell them, or they may use them for secondary uses.

However, there are some initiatives to recycle these batteries, such as the non-profit organization, Call2Recycle, which started a program in 1994 under the name, Call2Recycle Program. This program manages collection, pick-up transportation, sorting, and processing of lithium ion batteries[17]. They are also responsible for educating consumers and collection sites on how and why to recycle batteries. The company is present in certain states around the U.S., and are still expanding.

 

 

  1. Discussion
  1. Comparison to impacts of combustion engines

Since the popularity of electric vehicles continues to rise, they were compared to a normal combustion engine vehicle to an EV and the results were:

  • Combustion engine vehicles require oil to be lubricated and burn petroleum for propulsion. These types of vehicles are inefficient when cold started, but slowly become more efficient as they warm up and reach an ideal temperature[18]. Even though the technologies are advancing, and more efficient products are being created, a normal combustion engine vehicle will always emit some quantity of greenhouse gases[19]. Most consumers have become comfortable with this technology because of the convenience of having widespread gas stations available.
  • As mentioned in the introduction, there are 2 kinds of electric vehicles available: the all-electric vehicles like the Tesla models and the Chevy Bolt, and the plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, like the Toyota Prius Prime[20]. Both types use large rechargeable lithium ion batteries for propulsion and have minimal or no emissions at all depending on the EV type. Electric vehicles do not need to warm up to be more efficient but have a limited range[21] that gets worse in cold weather.

One major advantage that electric vehicles have compared to combustion engine vehicles is the minimal amount of maintenance that they require. For example, the Chevrolet Bolt does not require any major maintenance work until the vehicle hits 150,000 miles[22]. Meanwhile, a combustion engine vehicle requires exponentially more maintenance at more frequent intervals[23]. While the upfront cost of an electric vehicle might be higher compared to a combustion engine vehicle, over time an electric vehicle could be more cost effective to own and run.

When comparing the environmental impact of electric vehicles to combustion engine vehicles, one metric is to compare the total greenhouse gas emissions produced over the life cycle of the vehicle. The Union of Concerned Scientists determined in a comparison of life cycle assessments of EVs and combustion engine vehicles that EVs offset their high greenhouse gas emissions during production within 18 months of use and typically produce half the greenhouse gasses by the end of their lifetime. Shorter range EVs with smaller lithium ion battery packs will offset greenhouse gas emissions compared to similar cars in as few as 6 months. As mentioned previously, the greenhouse gas emissions created using lithium ion batteries mirrors that of the energy grid used to charge the batteries. Therefore, EVs have lower lifetime greenhouse gas emissions in areas where the portfolio of the energy grid is greener. There are many regions of the United States where EVs are better alternatives to combustion engine vehicles than they are in others. On the west coast of the United States, a combustion engine vehicle would need to have a miles per gallon rating from 87-94 to have equal greenhouse gas emissions to an EV. On the east coast of the United States, combustion engines would need to have an MPG rating between 47 and 135 depending on the location. Alternatively, combustion engine vehicles would need an MPG rating between 35 and 40 to have equal greenhouse gas emissions to EVs in Oklahoma, Nebraska, Colorado, Michigan, Wisconsin, Missouri, and most of Illinois due to the energy portfolios of those regions.[24]

            Another metric to compare EVs and traditional combustion engine vehicles would be the impacts of environmental damages when the extraction processes tied with both types of vehicles goes wrong. The mining and refining processes for nickel, copper, and cobalt regularly pollute water bodies and create air pollution. A waste spill at a smelting plant would have the worst ecological impacts in this mining industry. A recent example of this would be a nickel smelting plant spill in the Daldykan River in Norilsk, Siberia in 2018. This spill turned the river dark red and resulted in $5.9 million in cleanup costs. An identical spill occurred in the same location in 2016, resulting in similar damages.[25] Despite the regularity and scale of these environmental damages, they do not compare to the environmental disasters associated with the petroleum industry. The BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 alone resulted in $61.6 Billion in cleanup costs and an estimated $17.2 Billion in environmental damages.[26] As the lithium industry expands the costs of environmental damages will increase as well, but currently there is no industry equivalent to the environmental disasters prevalent in the petroleum industry.

  1. Lithium/battery recycling

To recycle lithium batteries, more public awareness needs to be created. Batteries must be recycled on their own and not with other commonly recycled materials such as paper and glass. As mentioned before, mixed recycling or general trash that includes lithium ion batteries can pose serious risks, therefore better disposal methods must be available.

  1. How long can current production/disposal practices be sustained?

Panasonic is already working towards removing cobalt from its electronics and car batteries as the metal becomes increasingly expensive and as cobalt continues to be tied with human rights violations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.[27] The lithium-ion battery industry is based on finite mineral resources and the industry has already experienced growing pains before reaching the potential many economists and environmentalists expect of it. Additionally, the components of lithium-ion batteries are often mined in countries with political struggles like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the lithium-ion battery industry would struggle if integral countries to their production were caught up in civil wars or established leadership that did not want to engage in the industry. These geopolitical elements of the industry have similar potential issues to those of the oil industry over the past century and countries like the United States could create more political instability trying to preserve an important industry.[28]

 

  1. Recommendations
  1. Knowledge awareness

Although knowledge on lithium ion batteries is emerging, more needs to be done to spread awareness on proper disposal and recycling methods of the batteries. As mentioned previously, fires that occur from batteries being mixed in with other trash or recycling can be a risk to garbage disposal trucks. Companies such as Call2Recycle have begun to do this, but a lot more work is needed. Better laws on mining practices across the globe is also needed. Part of this can be advocacy from companies that use raw mined materials to have better worker rights and safety laws.

  1. Extend the Federal Tax Credit for electric vehicles

When purchasing a new electric vehicle, the federal government offers a tax credit ranging from $2,500 to $7,500 that lowers the upfront cost of the vehicle. This tax credit is limited to 200,000 vehicles sold per manufacturer.[29] Our recommendation is to extend the tax credit until more affordable electric vehicles are introduced to the market.

  1. New policy recommendations

Policy recommendations to make lithium-ion battery use more environmentally sound and have less social impact should be targeted at the mining and disposal practices in the lithium-ion battery industry. The United States Environmental Protection Agency suggests substituting cathode materials for those that can conduct electricity but have less environmental and social impacts through their mining practices. They also suggest electrode processing methods that create less waste and recycling metals from old batteries. In terms of mining practices, small amounts of lithium can be recovered from oilfield brine, and mandating oil companies must recover lithium while engaging in the petroleum industry would provide a lithium source without further environmental impact past what is already done extracting petroleum and would essentially be a “green” tax on an industry that creates huge greenhouse gas emissions.[30] International laws on mining with strict emissions and air and water pollution regulations would improve the environmental impact of lithium ion batteries, while laws setting standards for human health and safety in the mining industry would improve the social impacts of lithium-ion battery production. Domestically, mandates for lithium-ion battery recycling would have large positive benefits and maintaining United States tax credits for purchasing electric vehicles would continue to incentivize purchasing EVs over combustion engine vehicles.

 

  1. Conclusion

Although electric vehicles are more environmentally sustainable than combustion engine vehicles in both production and customer use, there are still negative environmental impacts that occur. These aspects include raw material mining, which often violates many human rights, and emissions from manufacturing facilities. Often, the people who can afford and drive electric vehicles are not the same people who are harmed by the emissions they produce through manufacturing. Overall, electric vehicles have the potential to cause less harmful environmental impacts compared to combustion engines after looking at a life cycle assessment. With proper implementation of more environmentally sustainable products, comes the importance of marketing and getting information to the public. Information on electric vehicles and other products that use lithium-ion batteries is important, includes the manufacturing of them. The population who buys products with these batteries have the right to know where the raw materials are sourced from. Eventually, they will also need to know how to handle these batteries and dispose of them properly to avoid negatively impacting the environment.

 

 

Resources/Citing:

 

[1] Battery University, Is Lithium-ion the Ideal Battery? https://batteryuniversity.com/learn/archive/is_lithium_ion_the_ideal_battery

[2] Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, Electric Vehicle Basics https://www.energy.gov/eere/electricvehicles/electric-vehicle-basics

[3] Journal of Electrochemical Society, The Development and Future of Lithium Ion Batteries http://jes.ecsdl.org/content/164/1/A5019.full

[4] The Guardian, Tesla’s $13,000 battery could keep your home online in a blackout

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/apr/25/tesla-battery-home-elon-musk

[5] Li-ion battery materials https://www.targray.com/li-ion-battery

[6] How do lithium-ion batteries work? https://www.energy.gov/eere/articles/how-does-lithium-ion-battery-work

[7] Is Lithium-ion the Ideal Battery? https://batteryuniversity.com/learn/archive/is_lithium_ion_the_ideal_battery

[8] EPA (2013) “Application of Life-Cycle Assessment to Nanoscale Technology: Lithium-ion Batteries for Electric Vehicles.”

[9] Hacker, Siena. (2018) “How Green are Home Batteries? The Environmental Impact of Lithium-ion Batteries,” https://blog.pickmysolar.com/how-green-are-home-batteries-the-environmental-impact-of-lithium-ion.

[10] EPA (2013) “Application of Life-Cycle Assessment to Nanoscale Technology: Lithium-ion Batteries for Electric Vehicles.”

[11] Mucha, Lena. (2018) “The Hidden Cost of Cobalt Mining.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/in-sight/wp/2018/02/28/the-cost-of-cobalt/?utm_term=.0801e584a245

[12]  EPA (2013) “Application of Life-Cycle Assessment to Nanoscale Technology: Lithium-ion Batteries for Electric Vehicles.”

[13] Lithium Ion Batteries https://www.americandisposal.com/blog/lithium-ion-batteries

[14] Recycling Laws by State https://www.call2recycle.org/recycling-laws-by-state/

[15] Lithium Battery Disposal Guidelines http://www.bipowerusa.com/documents/disposal.asp

[16] Electric-Car Batteries: What happens to them after coming out of the car? https://www2.greencarreports.com/news/1093810_electric-car-batteries-what-happens-to-them-after-coming-out-of-the-car

[17] Safe Battery Collection & Recycling https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2018-03/documents/smith_epa_webinar_03_22_18.pdf

[18] ScienceDirect, Internal combustion engine cold-start efficiency: A review of the problem, causes and potential solutions. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0196890414001939

[19] Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, Emission Control https://www.energy.gov/eere/vehicles/emission-control

[20] Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, Electric Vehicle Basics https://www.energy.gov/eere/electricvehicles/electric-vehicle-basics

[21] The Drive, Americans Cite Range Anxiety, Cost as Largest Barriers for New EV Purchases: Study https://www.thedrive.com/news/26637/americans-cite-range-anxiety-cost-as-largest-barriers-for-new-ev-purchases-study

[22] Maintenance Schedule for your 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV https://my.chevrolet.com/content/dam/gmownercenter/gmna/dynamic/manuals/2017/Chevrolet/BOLT%20EV/Maintenance%20Schedule.pdf

[23] A Routine Car Maintenance Schedule Based on Engine Mileage  https://www.carsdirect.com/car-maintenance/a-routine-car-maintenance-schedule-based-on-engine-mileage

[24]  Nealer et al. (2015) “Cleaner Cars from Cradle to Grave.” Union of Concerned Scientists.

[25] “Updated: Arctic River Runs Red Again.” (2018) The Siberian Times Reporter. https://siberiantimes.com/ecology/others/news/arctic-river-turns-red-again-two-years-after-pollution-problem-supposedly-fixed/.

[26] Gaworecki, Mike. (2017) “BP’s Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Caused $17.2 billion in environmental damage to the Gulf of Mexico.” Mongabay. https://news.mongabay.com/2017/04/bps-deepwater-horizon-oil-spill-caused-17-2-billion-in-environmental-damage-to-the-gulf-of-mexico/.

[27] Panasonic plans to develop cobalt-free car batteries (2018) Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-panasonic-battery/panasonic-plans-to-develop-cobalt-free-car-batteries-idUSKCN1IV14Y.

[28] “Oil Dependence and US Foreign Policy.” (2019). Council on Foreign Relations. https://www.cfr.org/timeline/oil-dependence-and-us-foreign-policy.

[29] Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, Federal Tax Credit https://www.energy.gov/eere/electricvehicles/electric-vehicles-tax-credits-and-other-incentives

[30] EPA (2013) “Application of Life-Cycle Assessment to Nanoscale Technology: Lithium-ion Batteries for Electric Vehicles.”

No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.