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UN study highlights environmental impact of EV battery production

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With ever-tightening international laws to curb greenhouse gasoline emissions, electrification has grow to be a significant directive for the automotive business. Though electrical automobiles (EVs) themselves may need no tailpipe emissions, battery production is proven to have appreciable implications.


  • Lithium, cobalt, manganese and graphite are the first constituents of Li-ion batteries. 
  • Cobalt extraction in Democratic Republic of Congo linked to human rights violations.
  • Lithium mining discovered to be liable for water, air and soil air pollution.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), electrical vehicles accounted for two.6 p.c of international automobile gross sales and 1 p.c of international automobile inventory in 2019. Putting issues in perspective, international gross sales of electrical vehicles (together with battery electrical in addition to plug-in hybrid passenger automobiles) stood at 2.1 million models final yr, a 6 p.c enhance over 2018 figures. The international inventory of electrical vehicles shot up by 40 p.c year-on-year and amounted to 7.2 million models in 2019.

Furthermore, the IEA predicts about 140 million alternate power passenger automobiles to be plying on international roads by 2030 – an outstanding 20-fold soar over right this moment’s numbers.  

This exponential rise of EVs shall be accompanied by an equally substantive development of the rechargeable battery market. However, a report (the Special situation on strategic battery uncooked supplies) by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) has highlighted quite a few socio-economic and environmental impacts of mining battery uncooked supplies. Unless addressed, these issues might dent the positioning of EVs because the extra accountable type of transportation.     

Raw supplies of modern-day batteries

Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries of up to date electrical automobiles consist of 4 main elements: cathode (constructive electrode), anode (destructive electrode), electrolyte and separator.

The cathode is usually composed of a lithium ‘metal’ oxide, with completely different battery producers choosing completely different chemistries of the ‘metal’ – the commonest examples being NMC (nickel-manganese-cobalt) and NCA (nickel-cobalt-aluminium). The anode is made of graphite and the electrolyte is an amalgamation of completely different lithium salts in an natural solvent.

As such, the first uncooked supplies of Li-ion batteries are lithium, cobalt, manganese and graphite.

ImageResizer.ashx? How lithium ion battery works UN study highlights environmental impact of EV battery production

Major sources of uncooked supplies 

According to the US Geological Survey, Chile is dwelling to 58 p.c of the world’s lithium reserves, with Australia accounting for nearly a fifth of the usable deposits. However, in the case of production, Australia takes the lead.

A majority of cobalt reserves are concentrated within the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – with 50 p.c of the world’s reserves, the African nation contributes to virtually two-thirds of the worldwide cobalt production.

Manganese has virtually a 3rd of its international reserves, in addition to production, concentrated in South Africa. China, in the meantime, has emerged as a key participant within the commerce of pure graphite by placing out practically 70 p.c of the worldwide provide, regardless of having only a quarter of the world’s usable deposits.

Key gamers in Li-ion battery worth chain
Primary battery uncooked suppliesMajor reserves in 2018Major producers in 2018
LithiumChile (58%), Australia (19%), Argentina (14%), China (7%)Australia (60%), Chile (19%), China (9%), Argentina (7%)
CobaltDemocratic Republic of Congo (50%), Australia (17%), Cuba (7%), Philippines (4%)Democratic Republic of Congo (66%), Australia (4%), Cuba (4%), Russia (4%)
ManganeseSouth Africa (30%), Ukraine (18%), Brazil (15%), Australia (13%)South Africa (30%), Australia (17%), Gabon (13%), China (10%)
Natural graphiteTurkey (31%), China (25%), Brazil (24%), Mozambique (6%)China (68%), Brazil (10%), Canada (4%), India (4%)

Source: US Geological Survey, National Minerals Information Center 

Production and pricing

A surging demand for battery uncooked supplies, partly because of the spurt in EV gross sales, has had a knock on impact on their costs as properly. Cobalt costs shot up from $22,650 per tonne in direction of the top of 2015 to $92,000 per tonne in May 2018. Prices of lithium metallic additionally skyrocketed from $62,498 per tonne in February 2015 to $145,973 per tonne by mid-2018. However, costs for each components skilled a considerable decline in 2019 attributable to an oversupply and a slowdown in demand for EVs final yr.

Socio-economic and environmental implications of mining

Increasing mining actions to match the rising demand for battery uncooked supplies can have detrimental impacts, if not undertaken responsibly. Cobalt extraction, as an example, is a identified offender.

Artisanal mines within the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are notorious for human rights violations. As per the UNCTAD report, these mines make use of as many as 40,000 kids in hazardous situations.

Further, callous dealing with of supplies and wastes at cobalt mines has the potential of contaminating water assets. Moreover, there’s additionally a chance of different poisonous metals occurring in cobalt reserves and care must be taken to include them throughout mechanical excavation.

Extraction of lithium comes with its personal set of challenges. For occasion, in Chile, lithium mining from underground brine wells has not solely pushed out the native communities however has additionally led to environmental degradation by impacting the encompassing soil and water assets.

ImageResizer.ashx? SQM Salar de Atacama Chile UN study highlights environmental impact of EV battery production

SQM, a serious lithium mining firm in Chile, is a signatory in international efforts to develop a sustainable battery worth chain. (Image credit score: Sociedad Química y Minera de Chile)

Aiming for sustainability

To minimise ecological impact on the base of the rechargeable battery worth chain, mining practices should be centred on the thought of sustainability and stringent controls should be exercised.

Research into new and improved battery chemistries must proceed to alleviate dependence on essential uncooked supplies. Work can also be being finished to enhance power content material of batteries, which can assist scale back the quantity of uncooked supplies required within the first place and produce down prices as properly.

Recycling is one other issue that will finally drive the sustainability of lithium-ion cells by minimising waste and making a round economic system. However, huge capital investments and complexity of the duty are shaping as much as pose vital challenges.

Though electrification may be pitched as a silver bullet to the transport sector’s air pollution woes, there are a good few kinks that also should be ironed out. Having a holistic view of the entire EV ecosystem will, subsequently, type the idea of realising the total potential of electrical mobility.

ImageResizer.ashx? Ways to reduce battery environmental impact UN study highlights environmental impact of EV battery production

Also see:

Potential lithium reserve discover in Karnataka might speed up India’s EV ambition


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