Electric vehicles continue to grow in popularity thanks to growing consumer awareness, many compelling new models are coming to market, and several jurisdictions are now taking steps to reduce pollution and address climate change. Sales are growing in major markets like Europe, China and here in the US, with growth likely to continue for decades to come. With this growing demand for electric vehicles comes the growing demand for batteries. We must act now to build sustainable battery supply chains and ensure they limit damage to the environment and human health.
Fortunately, the United States has begun to take steps to address some of the challenges in the battery supply chain, but more priorities and funding are needed to ensure that we have access to the minerals needed to accelerate the electrification of transportation without compromising the health of the environment and the communities that they often bear the brunt of contamination and climate change impacts. So what are these challenges and how are decision makers thinking about solutions?
Transition minerals and battery power chains
Many of the problems with battery supply chains are associated with the mining and processing of the five minerals used in many of today’s leading electric vehicle (EV) batteries: lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese and graphite. These chemical elements are the basic building blocks of lithium-ion battery cells and are what give them the power to store and release energy to power electric vehicles. Given the growing importance of electric vehicles and batteries to the U.S. economy, the Department of the Interior has placed the elements on its “critical minerals” list in recent years, indicating concerns about securing future supplies. These five battery minerals, a handful of other important minerals and several rare earth elements, and other non-critical minerals such as copper make up the “transition minerals” we need for a zero emission vehicle (ZEV) economy. The need for minerals for electric vehicle batteries will significantly drive the overall market demand for transition minerals in the coming decades.
The battery supply chain consists of many actors working to transform the raw mineral building blocks into the sophisticated devices we use every day to power our electric vehicles, smartphones and laptops. The mining industry is responsible for the upper part of battery supply chains, including the identification and exploration of mineral reserves and the extraction of ores – sediments mixed with valuable minerals – from these sources. These ores are then transported to a facility where they are processed to remove foreign materials and refined to a grade suitable for batteries. After refining, one manufacturer uses these materials to make cathodes and anodes—the “positive” and “negative” sides of the battery—and sends them to downstream facilities that make battery cells. Finally, the battery cells are sent to another manufacturing plant where they are combined into large packs that can then be used in electric vehicles. At the downstream end of this supply chain, batteries are hopefully reused or recycled so that their materials can be recovered and used in new batteries.
This supply chain is quite complex and there are challenges at every step. Let’s start at the beginning with mining and refining activities.
Low domestic supply of EV battery minerals and recycled materials for battery production is a common problem. Transition mineral reserves are highly concentrated outside the United States; 50% of the world’s lithium and cobalt reserves are in Chile and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The geographic concentration of mineral reserves is a matter of nature, not necessity, but concentration issues extend beyond mineral reserves to other stages of the battery supply chain. Intermediate supply chain activities such as mineral refining and battery cell manufacturing are also concentrated in a small number of countries, mostly outside the US. countries for processing. Additionally, between long discovery and exploration periods, poor industry data, and a lack of federal agency resources, it can take more than a decade before minerals are extracted from a reserve in the United States. As a result of this geographic concentration, mineral and battery reserves could become a major source of geopolitical risk or even conflict.
Moving mining to the US could potentially reduce these geopolitical risks and be an improvement in worker safety and health standards compared to many countries. A combination of inadequate National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, processes and outdated U.S. mining laws favor mining over other land uses, poorly and independently monitor water use and contamination, and fail to require strict enough mining and tailings management or provide sufficient information about potential impacts to communities. As a result, the metal mining industry is the largest single source of toxic waste in the United States. Native communities likely bear the brunt of these regulatory loopholes disproportionately, as 97% of US nickel, 89% of copper, 79% of lithium, and 68% of cobalt reserves lie within 55 miles of Indian reservations. Securing metals must not sacrifice the environment and the free prior and informed consent of indigenous communities.
Congress and executive supply chain
The federal government is seeking to understand these domestic supply issues through congressional hearings and mitigate them through President Biden’s presidential order, which invokes the Defense Production Act to secure domestic critical mineral supply chains, as well as a total of $7 billion in grant funding to supporting domestic battery supply chains. from the infrastructure law of both parties. Additionally, the Department of the Interior launched a joint agency effort to improve mining and land use regulations, and the Clean Energy Minerals Reform Act was introduced in both the House and Senate to reform the Mining Act of 1872, which is still in effect in the US. operating 150 years later. It is imperative that these federal actions and any subsidized activities establish strong cultural, environmental and due care standards and encourage the adoption of less efficient and wasteful mining methods such as direct lithium mining and mineral recovery from waste processing.
Material substitution and technological improvements
Demand for transition minerals is growing rapidly and supply chains are struggling to keep up. The pressure to meet growing demand combined with geopolitical issues, resource location issues and environmental protection make meeting supply needs sustainably particularly challenging. Alleviating supply concerns must focus on reducing reliance on new mining as tools to address these issues. Material substitution and technological improvements are key factors in reducing demand for minerals; improved battery chemistry can provide the same amount of energy storage with much less mineral input or with other minerals that are more abundant and less efficient. Advanced manufacturing processes can reduce required inputs by improving material efficiency in battery manufacturing.
Reduce, reuse and recycle
In addition, reusing and recycling old batteries can reduce the need for newly extracted materials – also known as circular economy. However, the lack of labeling requirements, the extent of collection and processing infrastructure, minimal recycled content and different waste regulation contribute to a number of circular economy barriers for electric vehicle batteries. Unfortunately, most lithium-ion battery recycling today recovers the minerals at a much lower rate than is technologically feasible, and often less than 1% lithium is recovered. However, there are some success stories. Redwood Materials works with automakers such as Tesla, Ford and Volvo to ensure a material recovery rate of over 90% at their EV battery recycling facility in Nevada. RePurpose Energy has licensed technology and piloted commercial-scale energy storage projects that convert old electric vehicle batteries for microgrids. Finally, efforts to reduce our dependence on passenger vehicles through investment in better public transport and alternative forms of mobility may also help reduce the pressure on battery demand to some extent in the long term.
Reducing demand and limiting impacts
We must continue to push for a net-zero economy to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis and protect the communities that bear the brunt of those impacts. Electric cars are the main piece of this puzzle. The transition to zero-emission transport can avoid repeating the mistakes of the fossil fuel era by prioritizing demand reduction, recycling and reuse of materials. When they must be mined, this need should be carefully balanced against community impacts, indigenous rights and environmental concerns. We must support policies and programs that ensure that the supply chains for electric vehicles and their batteries are safe, circular, and limit the damage to the planet and the people we seek to protect.
Originally published on NRDC.
By Jordan Brinn
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