Does the environmental cost of getting lithium out of the ground (using diesel machines) and the impact of disposing batteries outweigh the benefits?

Obviously all forms of power have an environmental cost, but it’s generally considered that electric vehicles are far less detrimental to the earth than those powered by fossil fuels.

Of course, you may say electricity also comes from burning oil and gas, and that the production of batteries comes at a considerable environmental cost. All true, of course, but as even Greenpeace point out, electricity production is getting cleaner as each year passes:

“As the electricity grid gets cleaner, the carbon impact of manufacturing falls for all new cars. But once they’re actually on the road, powering a petrol car is as polluting as ever.”

…and as for the impact from extraction, methods of getting lithium out of rocks or enriched water sources are being devised that have minimal carbon impact without mining equipment or in fact, mining of any sort.

Much like the initial cost, electric vehicles come with more embedded carbon ‘upfront’ thanks to the battery production, but also like the cost, the total lifetime amount of carbon emissions are substantially lower.

For a standard mid-sized ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicle the embedded carbon in production will be around 5.6t CO2e, around three quarters of which is the steel, according to the low carbon vehicle partnership, Zemo.

The equivalent electric vehicle in 2015 was higher, (8.8tCO2e) 43% of which arose from the battery. Today, it’s estimated that the carbon cost of lithium batteries is much lower than it was, at around 73 kg CO2-equivalent/kWh in production terms.

Once on the road, and even at the old Zemo estimates, the electric produced 6 tonnes less CO2 during it’s lifetime of use. That estimate certainly seems cautious, when you consider the average engine road vehicle emits on average 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year.

In addition to carbon dioxide (CO2), engine-powered cars produce methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) from the exhaust, and hydrofluorocarbon emissions from leaking air conditioners. The US EPA reports:

The emissions of these gases are small in comparison to CO2; however, the impact of these emissions can be important because they have a higher global warming potential (GWP) than CO2.

Where a legitimate case can be made for batteries having a high impact is in the criss-crossing of the globe of raw materials and components, but this too could be substantially reduced by UK domestic lithium production, and it is hardly unique to electric machines.

Perhaps also if you are going to go to the trouble of producing a machine that moves and then digging up the fuel it needs, maybe you’d want to ensure that most of the energy goes into actually moving the thing? Here the internal combustion engine has a dreadful time competing with electric power.

Estimates differ, but few dispute that engines are incredibly inefficient compared to electric motors. Most of the energy used in engines is wasted as heat, perhaps as much as 70%!

As battery technology has developed, so too has the energy storage capability, and this trend will only continue…

  • Lead acid battery energy density: 23-35 Wh/kg
  • Nickel-Cadmium: 50-75 Wh/kg
  • Lithium-Ion: 100-265 Wh/kg
  • (Tesla Model 3 – 260 Wh/kg)
  • Lithium air: 500Wh/kg

So, what about disposal?

Only about 5% of lithium batteries are recycled globally but that figure includes all types, including phones, and is set to grow. The electric car market is still very young, and the consensus of opinion is that recycling is about to take off. The global market for Lithium-Ion Battery Recycling estimated at US$3.6 Billion in the year 2020, is projected to reach a US$10.7 Billion by 2026.

With some batteries lasting way beyond the typical 5 to 7 year lifespan of a counterbalance forklift, the chances are that aftersale values will soon reduce disposal costs to the same, if not less, than current lead-based traction batteries.

Companies such as Veolia already have extensive battery recycling capabilities, and the economics for recycling according to the CEO at Lithium Recycling Systems, Patrick Curran, are “growing and strong“.

“One metric ton of incoming batteries will cost approximately $90 for processing, with black mass selling for about $300 or more and the metallics for about $500. That’s a profitable recycling operation.”