Global lithium is either mined in Australia or from salt flats in the Andean regions of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, operations that use large amounts of groundwater to pump brines, drawing water available to indigenous farmers and ranchers. The water needed to produce batteries means that electric vehicle manufacturing uses about 50 percent more water than traditional internal combustion engines. The deposits of rare earths, concentrated in China, often contain radioactive substances which can emit water and radioactive dust.
By focusing on cobalt first, automakers and other manufacturers have committed to eliminating ‘artisanal’ cobalt from their supply chains, and also said they will develop batteries that reduce or eliminate completely. cobalt. But this technology is still in development, and the prevalence of these mines means that these commitments “are not realistic,” said Mickaël Daudin of Pact, a non-profit organization that works with mining communities in Africa.
Instead, said Daudin, manufacturers need to work with these mines to reduce their environmental footprint and ensure that miners work in safe conditions. If companies acted responsibly, the rise of electric vehicles would be a great opportunity for countries like Congo, he said. But if they don’t, “they will put the environment and the lives of many, many minors at risk.”
Recycling could be better
As previous generations of electric vehicles begin to reach the end of their life, preventing the stacking of used batteries appears to be a challenge.
Most of today’s electric vehicles use lithium-ion batteries, which can store more energy in the same space than older and more commonly used lead-acid battery technology. But while 99% of lead-acid batteries are recycled in the United States, estimated recycling rates for lithium-ion batteries are around 5%.
Experts point out that used batteries contain precious metals and other materials that can be recovered and reused. Depending on the process used, recycling batteries can also use large amounts of water or emit air pollutants.
“The percentage of recycled lithium batteries is very low, but with time and innovation it will increase,” said Radenka Maric, professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Connecticut.