2 January 2024
Addressing The Downside of Electric Vehicles
The International Energy Agency predicts there will be at least 125 million electric vehicles worldwide by 2030, up from 26 million EVs today. All the experts seem to agree that over the course of their driving life electric vehicles create fewer carbon emissions than traditional vehicles that run on planet-warming fossil fuels.But electric vehicles are not without their downsides, the biggest of which is the impact of the batteries they use. Kate Rawles in her extraordinary book, The Life Cycle: 8,000 Miles in the Andes by Bamboo Bike, describes vividly the human and environmental impact that mining cobalt and lithium has on communities she encountered on her journey through Latin America.
This impact is compounded by the fact that up until now we have not been able to recycle these minerals. The New York Times reports that the recycling rate for lithium-ion batteries is 5% in the US as compared to 99% for lead acid batteries. “Lithium-ion batteries were not developed for recycling… The packs in EV cars are a nightmare,” Wojciech Mrozik, an expert on battery recycling at Newcastle University, told the Financial Times. “They [the batteries] are not unified and have foams and glue, which require huge manual labour to separate.”
Technology start-ups are racing to make electric-vehicle batteries cleaner and more economical, with investors pouring billions of dollars into R&D. Battery-related start-ups collectively raised almost $20bn over 2021 and 2022. Companies like CATL, the Chinese battery giant, are working on to develop alternatives to lithium-based batteries using sodium-ion but are not yet at a stage to bring a product to market.
Hong Kong-based company GRST (which stands for Green, Renewable, Sustainable Technology) claims to have “the most effective battery recycling solution in the world”. The experts on the judging panel at the prestigious EarthShot Prize appear to agree with their claim and in November 2023 awarded GRST the EarthShot prize for Cleaner Air.
Instead of using toxic solvents and hard-to-recycle materials, GRST has created a way to build the battery using a water-soluble binding composite, so that at the end of the battery’s life, the lithium, cobalt and nickel can be more economically recovered and reused in another battery, reducing demand for further extraction. You can learn more about the technology involved here.
GRST batteries are already being sold in multiple countries. And the company is working hard to scale. They have plans to raise $50mn in the next two years to increase production at the battery plant it co-owns in Zhejiang province.
Cracking the challenge of recycling these finite and costly elements is a very positive step but in parallel with developing and increasing the recycling of these precious finite element, Industry also needs to address the issues around the humanitarian and environmental impact of mining. Mickaël Daudin of Pact, a nonprofit organization that works with mining communities in Africa told the New York Times that, if companies acted responsibly, the rise of electric vehicles would be a great opportunity for countries like Congo. But if they don’t, “they will put the environment, and many, many miners’ lives at risk”.