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Making Mining for EV Materials Sustainable

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Jane Marsh's picture

Jane Marsh is the Editor-in-Chief of She covers topics related to climate policy, sustainability, renewable energy and more.

  • Member since 2020
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  • Feb 9, 2023

Electric vehicles (EVs) are essential to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to prevent the worst effects of climate change. However, the way people make EVs today involves environmentally destructive mining processes. If EVs are to be a truly sustainable technology, these mining operations have to become more eco-friendly.

Why EV Material Mining Must Change

A single EV battery pack can contain around 8 kilograms of lithium, 14 kilograms of cobalt and 35 kilograms of nickel. Supplying those materials in large enough quantities to meet net-zero transportation goals would require mining operations to skyrocket, but this mining causes considerable environmental damage.

Mining equipment uses fossil fuels like diesel to operate, so increasing mined mineral demand could contribute to increased greenhouse gas emissions. These mines also displace considerable amounts of water and contribute to soil degradation by disrupting the Earth’s surface.

The chemicals and gases used to extract these minerals can also leech into the surrounding environment. This pollution can increase human disease rates, limit available clean drinking water and harm nearby wildlife.

How to Make Mining for EV Materials More Sustainable

The world needs EVs, but if this material mining remains the same, EV growth may not yield a net gain for the environment. Here are some ways to make these operations more sustainable to enable safe, eco-friendly EV expansion.

Redesigning EV Batteries

One of the most important steps is to reduce EVs’ reliance on these minerals. To accomplish that, automakers must redesign battery packs to provide the same efficiency without using as much lithium, nickel and similar materials.

Solid-state batteries — which require less cobalt and graphite by using a solid ceramic electrolyte instead of metallic liquids — are a promising alternative. These devices still need lithium, but they last longer than current options, helping reduce long-term demand and lithium mining is often less destructive than cobalt extraction.

Other potential alternatives include sodium-ion batteries and lithium-sulfur batteries. Both options reduce EVs’ reliance on rare materials while improving battery performance, helping prevent lithium waste and skyrocketing metal demand.

Using More Eco-Friendly Equipment

Another step in making EV material mining more sustainable is to move away from inefficient equipment. Some mines can use vehicles like microexcavators, which have an operating weight below 3,000 pounds, making them more energy-efficient. As redesigned batteries reduce material demand, these smaller-footprint options will become more viable for more mines.

Electric mining equipment is another critical part of this shift. EVs provide immediate torque delivery, making electric mining vehicles more practical than gas options and promoting adoption. In areas where frequent charging is not an option, hydrogen fuel cell alternatives could enable mines to go electric, as hydrogen vehicles are often more efficient.

Similarly, dig sites can use hydrogen fuel cell or solar generators in place of conventional gas-powered alternatives. This equipment would provide power to electric systems like lights and power tools without increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

Finding New Material Extraction Methods

Changing how companies extract needed materials will also help make these mining operations sustainable. Of the current most widely used methods, hard-rock extraction is better than brine mining, as it uses less water and energy, but new alternatives pose even more significant advantages.

Recycling is one of the most promising ways forward. Lithium recycling has previously been too inefficient to work at scale, but recent advancements have made recycled batteries last longer and charge faster than those made with new materials. If EV manufacturers can use more lithium, nickel, cobalt and similar metals from recycled sources, they could decrease their dependence on harmful mines.

Mining Must Improve to Sustain EV Growth

Reducing transportation emissions is crucial, but zero-emissions vehicles must have sustainable manufacturing processes to be truly eco-friendly. Addressing material mining is one of the most important steps toward that goal.

Redesigned batteries, renewable-powered equipment and new material extraction methods can make metal mining more sustainable. As that happens, EVs can grow without causing unintended environmental damage.


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