Electric cars: Impact of lithium batteries on the environment and geopolitics

The increase in the number of electric cars it can not only have positive consequences for the planet due to the greater demand for batteries and their effect on the ecosystem, – from the production phase to the disposal phase – and on the geopolitical balance.

Electric cars, are they really good for the environment? The industrial strategy you need

What is the ecological impact of lithium?

The core of battery sustainability stems primarily from the extraction of the basic raw materials for their creation, among which lithium stands out. The substance is obtained by extracting brackish water after drilling in salt surfaces, mainly present in the so-called ‘lithium triangle’ between Bolivia, Argentina and Chile. The method requires long periods of evaporation before obtaining the final product, which will use two thousand tons of water to produce a lithium.

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Another technique involves heating compounds such as Spodumene in combination with suitable chemical agents. The need to reach high temperatures involves the use of fossil fuels, causing the release of about nine tons of CO2 for one of lithium.

Another pollution factor is the consumption of electricity in the factories that create the batteries, according to a study by International Council on Clean Transportation for half of the greenhouse gas emissions of the entire production cycle. They depend to a large extent on the national energy supply and on the choices of individual car manufacturers. In particular, the decision to open factories powered solely by solar energy, as in the case of Tesla’s production center in Nevada, or to rely on economies that rely on coal, can have significant consequences for a battery’s environmental footprint.

The challenges of disposal cannot be ignored. As reported by the BBC, less than 5% of batteries are converted or recycled, despite still having four-fifths of their charging power – a threshold considered too low for an electric vehicle. Furthermore, the recycling procedure consists of melting the batteries to obtain nickel, cobalt and copper alloys, leaving most other components for disposal.

So how do you limit the environmental impact of electric car batteries? One solution would be to rely on innovative materials that are less dependent on lithium, but this is a more complex path than it seems.

The untapped potential of graphene, hydrogen and solar panels

Among the most promising technologies, the use of the graph stands out for its physical properties and hypothetical uses. Isolated in 2004 by Nobel laureates Geim and Novoselov, the graphene is formed by a very thin layer of carbon atoms, which combine high conductivity and flexibility with a low weight. The end result would be a lightweight battery that can be recharged in seconds from one of the most common items on our planet.

Another option is so-called fuel cells, which use the electrolysis process by combining hydrogen and oxygen to supply electricity to the vehicle’s propulsion system. The main advantage of fuel cells is that they do not have to be recharged and continue to produce energy as long as they receive fuel. Since hydrogen combined with oxygen produces water vapor, pollution from the exhaust gases would also be eliminated.

Finally, the cars of the future could be driven by solar panels integrated in the body. Aptera, a California-based start-up, announced that it plans to begin manufacturing solar-powered vehicles early next year, at a cost of $ 25,900 and a daily range of 30 to 74 kilometers. Other European companies, such as Lightyear and Sono Motors, are developing similar concepts, with delivery dates for the first models expected in the second half of 2022.

The restrictions hold back lithium alternatives

However, each of the alternatives analyzed so far presents some limitations. To date, no one has managed to produce graphene on a large scale, making any industrial use impossible. As a result, many listed companies specializing in materials synthesis have lost a large portion of their start-up capital over the course of ten years, discouraging further investment.

The adoption of combustion cells is at a more advanced level, as shown by the recent commercialization of some hydrogen cars of Toyota And Hyundai. However, the availability of hydrogen is still quite limited compared to more traditional fuels, while solar-powered cars are too young an innovation to take root in the short term.

Not surprisingly, many manufacturers continue to focus on lithium, trying to improve its performance. Names like Stellantis, Volkswagen, Ford, Samsung and Panasonic are exploring the development of solid-state batteries that are faster to recharge and less prone to toxic waste. The largest producer of lithium compounds, Gangfeng Lithium, has also announced massive investments in the new generation of batteries, aiming to start production within two years, half of what other competitors expected.

It is clear that technology alone is currently not enough to make batteries greener without changes in the global production system. So let’s take a closer look at how the leading powers in the lithium supply chain behave.

Supply chains and international balances

The actions that Beijing will be able to implement in the coming years will be of particular importance. China is without a doubt the dominant country in the industry and controls 80% of the raw material refining processes, 77% of the global battery production capacity and 60% of the individual components.

The undisputed precedence hides a negative side. As shown by Bloomberg’s annual ranking of lithium distribution chains, China ranks among the ten worst economies in terms of respect for the environment, primarily due to the widespread use of fossil energy.

The European Union could benefit from this situation. With improved environmental skills, some countries are creating optimal conditions for attracting sustainability-conscious companies.

In addition to the famous case of Tesla’s Gigafactory in Berlin, last year the loan of € 300 million. from the European Bank to Investments in creating lithium batteries in Sweden. The project, led by Northvolt, is the first fully “original” in Europe, but it will not be the only one for a long time. Italvolt has announced that it intends to transform the former Olivetti plant in Scarmagno into a battery production center, and Volkswasgen intends to create a similar plant in Wolfsburg.

European companies, on the other hand, can count on one Community legislation which encourages energy innovation. For years, the European Commission has supported the European Battery Alliance, an initiative that brings together local authorities, research centers and companies to share information and facilitate investment.

Brussels it is also working on a regulation that will oblige manufacturers to specify the CO2 footprint of batteries from 2024 with the aim of limiting related greenhouse gas emissions in the future. The bill also aims to increase the collection and recycling of batteries in existing energy infrastructures and is being considered by the European Parliament under the leadership of MEP Simona Bonafè.

In a more backward position, we find the United States, where the adoption of electric cars has been hampered by the Trump administration. In particular, the tax cuts in the purchase of electric cars and the trade war with China have played against car manufacturers, who can now count on a less hostile interlocutor.

Joe Biden not only has it launched a new incentive plan, but it wants to achieve parity between internal combustion and electric motors for every car sold by 2030. To this end, some federal agencies, including the postal service, will have to fully electrify their fleet, thereby stimulating demand from it. public sector. In any case, the road remains uphill and it will not be easy to revive a market where the sales percentages for electric cars are a third of China and half of Europe.

They sank economic and social costs

The fate of lithium not only concerns new technologies and geopolitical mechanisms, but has deeper economic and social implications than we imagine.

The techniques used in the fields of Latin America reduce access to water in naturally very arid areas, with negative consequences for agriculture and livestock farming, which are practiced by local people. Similar scenarios also exist in developing countries and rich in other substances necessary for the production of batteries. For example, the Democratic Republic of Congo is home to more than half of the cobalt reserves, extracted through child labor and extremely dangerous working conditions, at a wage of around € 3 a day. In Asia, China and India have closed various graphite mines due to air and water pollution associated with graphite production, causing prices to skyrocket in global markets.

Own the price of raw materials can accelerate the transition to greener batteries. After three years of steady decline, the price of lithium has more than quadrupled since the beginning of the year, and according to analysts, the rise will not stop soon. There are those who have already linked the trend with an increase in the cost of electric cars in China, with possible consequences in the rest of the world as well.

Conclusions

Advances in battery recycling will curb the price of lithium and electric cars, as well as opening up a sector with great potential. The European Union is in a position to favor scientific research in this direction, and with the proposed regulation on batteries it can also introduce a due diligence obligation on respect for human rights in battery production chains.

At the same time, China will have to maintain its leadership of the growing involvement of the United States, which will intensify its efforts to bridge the gap and raise domestic champions capable of competing with foreign firms.

The story of the sustainable development of batteries still needs to be written. Their relevance will certainly only increase both in the future of transport and in international balances.

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