Over the past few years, many environmentally conscious consumers have been turning to electric vehicles in an effort to reduce their impact on the environment. Some even go a step further by installing solar panels to further shrink their carbon footprint. Though as demand for electric vehicles has increased, we’ve identified another potential source of emissions, lithium mining. Today we’ll be investigating the science behind lithium mining to hopefully answer the question, is electric really the sustainable future we hope it will be?

Lifecycle emissions of EVs

Now I know the one thing you’re all worried about, so I’ll start by saying that in terms of emissions electric is still better than an internal combustion car. Studies have shown that the typical electric vehicle today produces about half of the carbon emissions over its lifetime compared to its internal combustion counterpart. That may still be alarmingly high to some though. 50% isn’t exactly “zero-carbon”. But there’s more good news. Those numbers are taking into account emissions from power generation. In places sporting more green energy like Norway electric vehicles produce less than a third of the emissions compared to internal combustion vehicles. 

Battery production can be made far more green than it is today as well. Over half of the emissions related to battery production are due to electricity generation. As more of the world’s power starts shifting to clean, renewable resources the production of batteries will become cleaner. It’s expected that the increased adoption of renewable energy will reduce emissions from battery production to drop by 17% by 2030. With these things in mind, we can expect a far cleaner and more sustainable future as long as we can keep making batteries. 

Sustainability

Unfortunately, lithium is finite. While our estimates of lithium reserves could last us 100s of years with current lithium usage, increased demand driven by electric cars could change that story very quickly. Some studies even show we may not be able to meet the growing global lithium demand in the next few years. With this potential disaster on the horizon, where can we turn for hope?

Economies of scale could be crucial towards making the process of mining lithium, producing batteries, and recycling those batteries as efficient as possible to be able to meet global demand. Many mining companies are researching technologies to make lithium extraction more efficient and profitable, as well as making new deposits of lithium available to us. While this isn’t enough to save us, an increased volume of battery recycling could improve the efficiency of the recycling process. But maybe we don’t need to just recycle all of our used EV batteries. While a battery may be depleted enough to be unfit for the road, many of those “spent” batteries still hold 75%-80% of their original capacity. These batteries can be repurposed to supplement our electrical grid as intermittent forms of power generation such as wind or solar, giving them a second life. Battery technology is also improving at a very fast rate. The energy density of batteries has been increasing steadily at a rate of about 5%-8% per year, and increased demand should drive even more innovation in developing new technologies.

While at some point in the future we will almost certainly need to develop new technologies to fulfill our electricity storage needs, I’m very hopeful that improvements in battery technologies, increased lithium mining efficiency, and more recycling will be able to meet our demand for the time being. And with increased adoption of renewable energy supplemented with power storage, we can start working towards making a greener planet TODAY.

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