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Battery sustainability
Amongst all the talk and promise of lithium ion batteries,
we also need to consider the environmental and
sustainability aspects of particular battery types. These
issues will include the availability of materials, the mining
and manufacturing process and the toxicity of the
materials used in batteries, especially during the recycling
and disposal period.
The Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia
are home to over half the
world's lithium deposits.
Although lithium is considered to be less toxic than lead it
does have a lot of negative effects if we don’t recycle or
dispose of it correctly. Lithium is an element used in the
treatment of psychological disorders and is a strong mind
affecting substance.
Ultimately, one of the most concerning aspects of lithium
ion batteries is the mining of lithium and the exploitation
by the Western world of the countries that it is mined in,
where we find the largest sources of lithium. One of the
major concerns in particular, is for the exploitation of the
local residents close to the mines who provide a source of
low-cost labour.
A lot of work needs to be done to reduce the issues
around lithium ion production in the major producing
countries if it is to be considered truly ethical.
Lithium ion batteries - bad for
the environment
Lithium (Li-ion) batteries used for energy storage are
showing a lot of great potential, but a report from the
Environmental Protection Agency says there are still a lot
of areas for improvement with their main concern being
specifically the impact to the environment and on public
“While Li-ion batteries for electric vehicles are definitely a
step in the right direction from traditional petrol and
diesel fuelled vehicles, some of the materials and methods
used to manufacture them could certainly be greatly
improved," as quoted by Jay Smith, ABT Associates senior
analyst and co-lead of a cradle-to-grave life-cycle
assessment for the EPA and DOE.
It is not unusual to read that
lithium batteries contain no toxins
and that mining the metal is “an
environmentally benign process”.
In reality, lithium affects the use of
water by organisms, especially
those with nervous systems.
Obtaining it via underground
reservoirs of dissolved salts known
as salar brines is harsh on
creatures in any desert-like
environment where it is extracted.
In order for batteries to function,
lithium must be used with
chemicals that are even more
toxic. Friends of the Earth (FOE),
Europe states: “The release of such
chemicals through leaching, spills
or air emissions can harm
communities, ecosystems and food
production. Moreover, lithium
extraction inevitably harms the soil
and also causes air contamination.”
One part of the study revealed that batteries using cathodes with nickel and cobalt, as well as
solvent-based electrode processing, show the highest potential for certain environmental and health
impacts, including resource depletion, global warming, and ecological toxicity.
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Life Cycle Assessment of Lithium Ion Batteries
The information below was taken from the document
of April 24, 2013. Application of Life- Cycle
Assessment to Nanoscale Technology: Lithium-ion
Batteries. United States Environmental Protection
Agency. (126 Page Document).
This EPA study looked at the impact of several kinds of
lithium-ion batteries on resource depletion, global
warming potential, acidification potential,
eutrophication potential, ozone depletion potential,
photochemical oxidation potential, ecological toxicity
potential, human toxicity potential, occupation cancer
hazard, occupational non-cancer hazard.
Battery recycling by location
(all battery types)
Return percentage
61 %
73 %
59 %
55 %
39 %
44 %
Since the lifetime of a li-ion battery was assumed to be
10 years, about twice as long as reality, and it is
44 %
assumed ways to recycle most of the materials will be
found, various other parts of the LCA analysis were not
32 %
emphasized. Also, “Because the market for recovered
and recycled material from lithium-ion batteries is not
United Kingdom 32 %
well developed for large battery packs, we assumed an
optimistic scenario for the reuse and recycling of
16 %
materials, essentially modelling all recovered materials
as being directly reinserted into the applicable
5.6 %
commodity market and displacing virgin materials”.
The results are therefore optimistic, but the reader can
decide how to modify the results to reflect current reality. Also, certain life-cycle stages were
emphasized and characterized more than others.
A worst case scenario with a battery life of 5-years is presented in the paper and “Halving the lifetime
of the battery has a significant adverse effect on impact categories, including occupational cancer
and non-cancer, ecotoxicity, and ozone depletion.”
The paper has many interesting sections not all covered here, i.e. how batteries are made, the energy
used, the supply chains, and environmental impacts.
Why Advanced Lithium Ion Batteries Won't Be Recycled
In the world of the energy storage sector, one of
the most pervasive and enduring myths is that a
recycling infrastructure for our used lithium mine
batteries, will be designed and built before these
wonder batteries that are being designed reach the
end of their useful lives. Unfortunately, in the worst
case scenario, advocates suggest that the used
lithium ion batteries will be stockpiled until there
are enough used batteries to justify the building of
a recycling infrastructure.
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Unfortunately, the numbers tell a very different story.
What has been happening for several years now, with the obsession of all lithium-ion battery
developers has been reducing costs to a point where using batteries as a substitute in electric
vehicles for a fuel tank makes economic sense. But the progress that has been made has mainly
come from substituting cheap raw materials like iron, manganese and titanium for the more costly
cobalt and nickel that were used in first generation lithium-ion batteries. This unfortunately means,
when you slash the cost of the materials that go into a battery you also slash the value of the
materials that can be recovered from that battery at the end of its useful life.
Battery Chemistry
Metal Value
Per Ton
Lithium cobalt oxide
Lead acid
Lithium iron phosphate
Lithium manganese
Figures derived from the Material Data Safety
Sheets of Powerizer and current LME Prices
from, in the table below
shows the calculated value of the metals that
can be recovered from recycling a ton of used
batteries and is summarized in the following
Considering the extremely high metal value of used cobalt in lithium based batteries it seems
strange that only one company in the world, Umicore of Belgium, has bothered to develop a
recycling process. If you take the time to read and digest Umicore's process description, however,
the reason soon becomes obvious. Recycling lithium-ion batteries is an incredibly complex and
expensive undertaking that includes:
Collection and reception of
Burning of flammable
Neutralization of hazardous
internal chemistry;
Smelting of metallic components;
Refining & purification of
recovered high value metals; and
Disposal of non-recoverable
waste metals like lithium and
The process only becomes economic
when a ton of batteries contains up to 600
pounds of recoverable cobalt that's worth
Chemetall Foote Lithium Operation showing the
$40 a pound. The instant you take the
chlorine polluted water.
cobalt out of the equation, the process
becomes hopelessly uneconomic.
Products that cannot be economically
recycled can only end up in one place, your friendly neighbourhood landfill.
This means that despite their extremely high metal value, cobalt-based lithium batteries are rarely
recycled because process is so difficult and expensive.
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When we take into consideration their
appallingly low metal values, lithium iron
phosphate batteries from A123 Systems
(AONE) and Valence Technologies
(VLNC), lithium manganese batteries
from Ener1 (HEV) and lithium titanate
batteries from Altair Nanotechnologies
(ALTI) will never be reasonable
candidates for recycling, which
effectively guarantees that eventually
buyers will ultimately be required to pay
huge disposal fees.
Comparatively, Lead-acid batteries are
Currently freelance miners work to break up the surface salt and
the most widely recycled product in the
sell the lithium salt to passing trucks for just a few dollars
world and this is because they contain
70% lead by weight, the recycling
process is simple and a robust global recycling infrastructure already exists. Many leading lead-acid
battery manufacturers including Johnson Controls (JCI) and Exide Technologies (XIDE) view their
recycling operations as major profit centres that also insures continuity of raw materials supply.
What is the life span we can expect from a Lithium-ion
A lithium-ion’s battery life is defined in studies
as beyond its useful life when its capacity falls
by 20 percent or more.
Lithium-ion batteries start to degrade as soon as
they’re made, even when you aren’t using
Temperature. This can change a batteries life by
5 years or more. Ideally a lithium-ion battery
should be kept between -10 to 30 degrees
Celsius. When a lithium ion battery is operating
in a temperature above 30°C the battery can be
permanently degraded, that is why cooling technology is used in Tesla’s batteries for protection.
Below -10°C the battery can’t provide full power.
Depth of discharge. If you discharge a lithium-ion battery too much before recharging, you may
shorten the lifetime to just 300-500 cycles and the battery capacity will drop to 70%. A lithium-ion
battery will last much longer if you use half or less than the maximum depth of discharge and then
recharge, extending the cycle life as high as 1,200-1,500 cycles.
At the same time fully charging isn’t good either, that's why for example the Tesla Roadster and
other EV don’t allow you to recharge more than 95% of the original power or drain the power to less
than 2%.
It is important that we also sometimes we need to be sceptical of “breakthroughs” such as the Oak
Ridge National Laboratory battery that retains 90% of capacity after 10,000 cycles but doesn’t
mention energy density, in “Solid electrolyte: the key for high-voltage lithium batteries,” Advanced
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Energy Materials (2014). All too often any advancement in one area almost always results in a loss in
other area(s).
Li-ion Batteries deteriorate. The more deeply you discharge a battery, the more often you
charge/recharge it (cycles), or the battery is exposed to below freezing or above 25°C degree
temperatures, the shorter the life of the battery will be. Even doing nothing, shortens battery life: Liion batteries lose charge when idle, so an old, unused battery will last only as long as continuously
used one. Tesla engineers expect the power of their batteries to degrade by as much as 30% in five
According to Popp et. al. in their 2014 “Lifetime analysis of four different lithium ion batteries for
plug-in electric vehicle” for Transport Research Arena, Paris, the commercial Nickel-cobalt oxide
version is superior to all other experimental cells in their capacity, energy content, energy density,
and series resistance, but have the worst environmental impacts.
Lithium Ion battery –
information collation
Most of this information is taken from data that
has been collected from lithium ion batteries
currently used in electric vehicles as there is not
enough data yet available for lithium ion
batteries designed to be used to store
electricity. However, information currently
available suggests that the larger scale lithium
ion batteries will actually be a lower quality battery
than the ones currently used in electric vehicles.
Polluted water, blue with chlorine, at a
lithium mine in the Atacama Desert, Chile
Battery sustainability – Lead Acid Batteries
Although there is a lot of talk and promise of lithium ion batteries, many people are still considering
using lead acid batteries. The health and environmental effects of lead acid batteries also needs to
be taken into account before making this decision.
The poisonous nature of lead has long been
known, including its poisonous effects on both
animals and humans. Lead effects and damages
the nervous system and can cause muscle pain,
nausea and reduces IQ levels along with many
other symptoms.
And whilst we almost entirely recycle lead acid
batteries here in Australia and in most other
developed countries, there is a proportion of the
batteries that aren’t recycled and end up being
dumped or going to landfill. These batteries can
then contaminate waterways and groundwater
over time. We need to move further towards using
non-toxic materials in batteries to begin with.
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Sections from the Environmental Protection Agency USA paper:
The study showed that the batteries that use cathodes with nickel and cobalt, as well as solvent-based
electrode processing, have the highest potential for environmental impacts. These impacts include resource
depletion, global warming, ecological toxicity, and human health impacts. The largest contributing processes
include those associated with the production, processing, and use of cobalt and nickel metal compounds,
which may cause adverse respiratory, pulmonary, and neurological effects in those exposed.
As of 2007, batteries accounted for 25% of lithium resource consumption; this amount is projected to increase
Water is the main material input at 500-5400 kg/kWh (24-67% of total) and second is the lithium brine taken
from saline lakes in Chile at 540-750 kg/kWh (9-28% of total). Most of which comes from the materials
extraction stage in the life cycle.
Lifetime of the battery is a significant determinant of impact results; halving the lifetime of the battery results
effectively doubles the non-use stage impacts, resulting in substantial increases in global warming potential,
acidification potential, ozone depletion potential, and photochemical oxidation potential (e.g., smog).
Life-Cycle Stages
Though the use stage of the battery dominates in most impact categories, upstream and production is nonnegligible in all categories, and relatively important with regard to eutrophication potential, ozone depletion
potential, ecological toxicity potential, and the occupational cancer and non-cancer hazard impact categories.
The extraction and processing of metals, specifically aluminium used in the cathode and passive cooling
system and steel used in the battery pack housing and battery management system (BMS), are key drivers of
Recovery of materials in the EOL stage significantly reduces overall life-cycle impacts, as the extraction and
processing of virgin materials is a key contributor to impacts across battery chemistries. This is particularly the
case for the cathode and battery components using metals (e.g., passive cooling system, BMS, pack housing
and casing). Therefore, the analysis underscores the importance of curtailing the extraction of virgin lithium to
preserve valuable resources and reduce environmental impacts.
Battery recycling issues
Although metals are recovered from Li-ion batteries, they are currently not fed back into the battery cell
manufacturing process. To do so, the recovered battery materials (including lithium) would need to be
processed so they are “battery grade” which means they can be used as secondary material in the battery cell
manufacturing process. However, there are a few key obstacles to achieving this goal, including:
1. The battery manufacturers frequently modify their battery chemistries, which makes it difficult to
incorporate recovered materials. This is especially a concern for EV batteries, which may be recovered 10
to 15 years after the battery is manufactured. The battery companies continually modify their
chemistries to try to obtain market distinction and to improve charge capacity and energy density, which
generate benefits in the use stage of the battery.
2. The battery manufacturers are hesitant to use secondary materials, as they fear it will not be of high
enough quality to meet the battery specifications required by the original equipment manufacturers
(OEMs) that purchase the batteries and manufacture the vehicles.
3. Batteries may be capable of having a –second life or use as part of another product, such as to provide
energy storage for an electricity grid; however, there is limited information on characterizing spent
batteries in a secondary application, so the potential second life was not included in this study.
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