Metal process

How serious is the manufacturing process for batteries for electric vehicles?

An electric vehicle (EV) will produce far fewer emissions over its lifetime than an internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle. However, the materials needed to manufacture batteries for electric vehicles have a number of environmental impacts and are of concern.

In the case of lithium, cobalt and rare earths, the world’s top three producers control well over three-quarters of global production. This high geographic concentration, the long delays in bringing new mineral production into service, the decline in the quality of resources in certain areas and various environmental and social impacts raise concerns about a reliable and sustainable supply of minerals to support the energy transition. .

Over the lifetime of the vehicle, the total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with manufacturing, charging and driving an electric vehicle are lower than the total GHG emissions associated with a car gasoline. Indeed, electric vehicles emit no tailpipe emissions and are generally responsible for far fewer GHGs during operation. Researchers at Argonne National Laboratory estimated emissions from an ICE-powered car and an electric vehicle with an electric range of 300 miles. According to their estimates, while the GHG emissions from EV manufacturing and end-of-life are higher, the total GHGs for the EV are still lower than for the ICE-powered car.

battery manufacturing

Chart taken from EPA/public domain

Yet there is no reason to hide it: even if the emissions of electric vehicles over their lifetime are lower than those of an internal combustion engine vehicle, the manufacture of electric vehicles has a dark side. and conflicting priorities that require attention and research.

An electric vehicle needs around 200 kg of minerals such as copper, nickel, cobalt and lithium. That’s 6 times more than an ICE-powered car. In a scenario outlined by the IEA that meets the goals of the Paris Agreement, the share of clean energy technologies in total demand will increase significantly over the next two decades to reach more than 40% for copper and rare earths. , 60 to 70% for nickel and cobalt, and almost 90% for lithium.

The search for metals is launched in Battery Valley and elsewhere

The Cut Inflation Act, the most powerful U.S. climate law ever passed, commits nearly $400 billion to clean energy initiatives over the next decade, including tax credits for electric vehicles. The electric vehicles that will be eligible for the $7,500 credit are manufactured in North America using batteries containing minerals mined from the ground in the United States or from its business partners.

The Zero Emissions Transportation Association (ZETA) and Ford Motor Company say promoting mining in the United States will help put more electric vehicles on the road. In written comments to an Interior Department task force on mining law reform, they urged President Joe Biden to facilitate the development of mining projects on federal lands. It’s part of a larger picture in the search for more domestic sources of minerals and materials for lithium-ion batteries amid growing tensions between the West and China, with the latter controlling supply chains. metals for batteries.

A new mine in the United States can take 7-10 years to complete all permits and documents before going live. In Canada and Australia, this process only takes 2 to 3 years, says Ford.

Not all American automakers are waiting. Drive Tesla Canada excitedly reported hints that Tesla will be building their next Gigafactory in their country. Tesla’s recent sightings at the New World mine continue this speculation due to its ability to supply anode-making materials to battery manufacturers. New World could intrigue Tesla with its claims to be the largest mining deposit in North America.

An EV battery and lithium: energy storage and controversy

Lithium is a crucial component in battery manufacturing, a soft white metal that is excellent for storing energy. The International Energy Agency has predicted that demand will increase more than 40 times by 2040 if countries around the world stick to the Paris Agreement targets to reduce GHG emissions. Electric vehicles and battery storage have already replaced consumer electronics to become the largest consumer of lithium and are expected to take over from stainless steel as the largest end user of nickel by 2040.

Lithium is extracted from rocks or brine.

  • Spodumene: Digging for a lithium-rich ore called spodumene uses an open-pit mining process, which poses significant environmental risks due to scarring of the ground and mining processes. Mines in Tasmania, for example, have been leaking contaminated water for 5 years. 79% of the extractable lithium in the United States is within 35 miles of Native reservations. Some of these mining projects, while providing essential metals to meet the global fossil fuel transition challenge, may face strong and growing opposition from Native Americans to threaten sacred areas or traditional ways of life.
  • Salt water: Brine – seawater, other surface water, groundwater or hypersaline solutions – is mixed with fresh water and allowed to sit in ponds for up to 18 months. The water eventually evaporates and leaves behind minerals. Further processing is required before the lithium can be extracted. Concentrated brine, which is the by-product of desalination, contains an even higher concentration of valuable minerals compared to other brine sources, making it a resource for lithium mining.

Several universities, startups and innovators are engaged in R&D to produce cleaner metal mining. Of particular interest is direct extraction, which involves sourcing lithium directly from brine rather than evaporating water and using chemicals to remove impurities. The quest for this technology is to make it a commercially viable process.

Final Thoughts on Battery Manufacturing

Around 10 million electric vehicle batteries are expected to be shipped worldwide in 2022, with the number expected to reach 30 million by 2027. California will ban the sale of new ICE-powered cars by 2035 , another step in the global market towards the transition to all-electric transportation and the need for EV batteries.

Recycling EV batteries is often seen as a way to reduce the emissions associated with manufacturing an EV by reducing primary supply requirements. Recycling takes into account both conventional sources and emerging waste streams such as used batteries from electric vehicles. But battery recycling is just a proverbial drop in the EV manufacturing bucket.

Responsible extraction is essential. It’s about investigating local biodiversity, water flows and the concerns of local communities to determine how to reduce damage, said Aimee Boulanger, executive director of the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance. New York Times. These measures can be costly, which can reduce profits, so most companies meet the minimum requirements of the law.

Progress towards responsible extraction is taking place, albeit slowly, in Chile and the United States. Boulanger argues that these laws are often not strict enough to truly protect the environment, saying, “You don’t need a lot of new technology.

Critics like ZETA and Ford counter that the urgency of the climate crisis means the world doesn’t have time to mine these metals meticulously. “Perhaps we wouldn’t be living in the climate-stressed world we live in right now if we had looked at the impacts of oil and gas supply,” she notes, adding, “We we don’t have time to do more damage while we try to fix this.”

John Mavrogenes, professor of economic geology at the Australian National University, says many mining choices about the confluence of profitability and responsibility will soon take place. “We have to decide as a country, what is the value of a place and is it worth risking for mining.”


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