The Dirty Underbelly of Electirc Vehicles

Imagine a mountain of human waste. What do you see? Some open garbage dump with plastic bags and vultures swirling about in equal numbers? Or maybe large concrete tubes pouring all manner or toxic ooze downstream from the local chemical plant? Blackened skies filled with smoke from incinerator towers? An ocean swirling with garbage?

Probably not many imagine a massive pile of lithium-ion batteries, pulled from an invention intended to avert the very doomsday scenarios imagined above. But this is exactly the future scientists and environmentalists are hoping to avoid. According to an article published in Chemical and Engineering News, it is predicted that China alone will generate 500,000 metric tons of dead batteries by the year 2020 and 2 million metric tons worldwide by the year 2030. Take a minute to try to wrap your head around those numbers. It’s staggering.

You may be aware that your cell phone is probably packing a lithium-ion battery, and yes there are a heck of a lot of cell phones out there, but by no means are they the greatest contributor to the 2 million tons mentioned above. Two words: electric cars. Sadly, the fleet of electric vehicles (EVs) bursting onto the world markets today bring with them their own set of environmental challenges.

It remains that electric cars are clearly the future of automotives and for good reason. Breaking our dependence on fossil fuels, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and particulate matter pollution, and supporting battery research for other reasons such a grid storage, absolutely make EVs one of humanity’s best green advances in modern history. Which is exactly why I am remiss to be seen as a critic. However, if you read last week’s blog you’ll understand that criticism is essential to scientific progress.

Science to the rescue!

The good news is that scientists are already on the job, cooking up ways to avert the “no action” catastrophe outlined above. My favorite solution is repurposing spent EV batteries for grid storage. “I thought the batteries were spent”, you say? For both our cell phones and EVs alike, consumers consider their batteries “spent” when ~25% of original charging capacity is lost. 75% capacity remains, yet consumers either replace the battery or junk the item entirely. But any electrical engineer could tell you that linking these “spent” batteries in series essentially gives you the sum of their storage capacity. Obviously, for portable items such as cell phones and cars, it’s not feasible to have a chain of batteries in series filling up your trunk or hanging out of your phone. But what if you don’t need the batteries to be mobile…

One of the major hurdles to many green energy solutions is energy storage. Solar is useless in the dark as are wind turbines when the wind doesn’t blow. However, a pile of used EV batteries could easily hold excess energy from sunny or windy days and hold significant wattage for those proverbial rainy days. Repurposing used EV batteries would kill two birds with one stone- saving the batteries from the landfill while further supporting other clean energy solutions.

The next best idea already in the works is to support efforts to improve the recyclability of future batteries. Acquisition of the raw materials required for lithium battery production is already plagued with both human rights violations and environmental degradation. As demand for Li-ion batteries grows, it only makes sense that we work to recover whatever materials we can to prevent any further negative consequences.

Often times the ability to efficiently recycle an item begins at a product’s initial design. With that in mind numerous academic institutions now offer graduate degrees in battery recycling. Additionally, the US Department of Energy recently announced plans to open a Li-ion battery recycling R&D specific lab in addition to a $5.5 million (USD) battery recycling prize to encourage private firms and individuals worldwide to put brains to the task.

This month the global scientific community recognized the development of lithium-ion batteries when it was announced that the 2019 Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded to two scientists that were instrumental their invention. Scientists have created a modern wonder that is already reshaping human civilization but now they recognize that we can’t stop here. We have the chance to do this right. Let’s not blow it this time.