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Building Sustainability Into the EV Battery Supply Chain

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Jane Marsh's picture
Editor, Environment.co

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

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  • Nov 18, 2022
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Building sustainability into the EV battery supply chain will require action from automakers and suppliers, as well as greater adoption of new technologies. These supplies rely on raw-materials mining that is harmful to the environment and utilizes unethical labor practices. The supply chain needs to shift to more sustainable batteries and develop ways to use more recycled raw materials in the future.

Sustainability Challenges in the Battery Supply Chain

Sustainability in the battery supply chain has become a significant concern over recent years as demand for raw materials continues to surge. It must become more environmentally friendly for EVs to become mainstream and affordable.

Harmful Mining Practices

Among the most significant environmental issues with the EV battery supply chain today is its impact on the regions where cobalt and lithium are mined. Many of these mines are located in places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where there are no strict labor laws to ensure safe and healthy working conditions. Child labor is permitted, and miners lack basic protective equipment like masks to keep them safe from the polluted air.

Mining companies also rarely take the necessary precautions to protect the environment. Miners and nearby residents report finding pollution from local mines in their drinking water. Chemical leaks and carbon emissions from mining processes pose an equally serious threat to communities and ecosystems.

EV Battery Recycling Concerns

Recycling is another key concern as EVs become more popular. Many people wonder what to do with batteries once they’re no longer usable. E-waste is already a serious environmental issue worldwide, and without a viable end-of-life plan for EV batteries, the supply chain will be creating a huge stockpile.

Developing effective recycling methods for EV batteries will be a top concern in the years ahead. What if the supply chain could help recycle them? Experts have suggested that raw resources could be extracted from spent EV batteries to be reused in new ones. This would diminish waste from dead batteries and reduce reliance on unethical lithium and cobalt mining practices.

Opportunities to Improve EV Battery Sustainability

The EV battery supply chain is far from perfect, but businesses and industry leaders are taking action to change things. There are also opportunities for building a more sustainable supply chain using different types of batteries and raw materials.

Scientists and engineers are working hard to develop new battery technologies that don’t rely on cobalt. One innovative option uses the minerals found in saltwater to supply power. The technology is still young, but it could potentially be used to create zero-emissions saltwater fuel cell EVs. Hydrogen fuel cells have similar potential. These types of technologies are great for larger vehicles since they avoid the need to produce extra-large solid batteries.

EV manufacturers are changing their ways already. For example, leading EV manufacturer Tesla announced in 2022 that half of the vehicles it made in the first quarter of the year used lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries. They are cobalt-free, which means they have no reliance on the notoriously toxic and unsafe mining industry.

In fact, Tesla’s switch to LFP batteries follows a 2019 lawsuit by the International Rights Advocates involving the deaths and injuries of child miners working for cobalt suppliers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As of 2022, conventional cobalt-based batteries are still commonplace in the EV industry. Manufacturers can cut off funding for these environmentally and socially harmful mining practices by switching to different battery materials like Tesla.

Battery manufacturers are also changing how they do business. One of today’s biggest EV battery suppliers, Panasonic, is developing a closed-loop supply chain for its batteries. By working with sustainable materials suppliers, Panasonic is incorporating more recycled materials into its batteries and ensuring old ones are recycled and disassembled.

Many businesses are also working to move battery sourcing and manufacturing to the U.S., where they can ensure safe and sustainable working conditions. This will also help bring the price of EVs down domestically and ensure that American automakers have the raw materials they need. A domestic EV battery supply chain will have to follow strict ethical and environmental requirements that will improve sustainability.

The Road Forward for the EV Battery Supply Chain

Building sustainability into the EV battery supply chain will require a combination of new technologies, as well as action from manufacturers and suppliers. Automakers must invest in more sustainable types of batteries, like fuel cells and LFPs.

Recycling and reusing raw materials will also go a long way toward reducing the environmental impact of EV batteries, from production to end-of-life. By changing the way batteries are sourced and made, zero-emissions vehicles can get on the road without relying on a harmful supply chain.

Discussions
Jim Stack's picture
Jim Stack on Nov 22, 2022

The progress I have seen in battery life and recycling is great. Progressive companies even have solid state batteries ready for release to the public. I have seen Tesla recycling their own batteries and are at a 98% reuse of material. FOr Tesla 2nd in command J B Strobell started Redwood materials with cost effective recycling of all they of Lithium batteries. Also Li-Cycle is setting up recycling factories in many states to recycle Lithium batteries. They are also delivering recycled lithium that is as good as 1st new lithium. 

     The life of batteries are going from 100,000 miles to one million miles now. That is a big improvement. I feel this is just the start of even more improvements. Just in time to as some batteries are reaching  their life end.  

Jane Marsh's picture
Thank Jane for the Post!
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