Addressing EV battery use, disposal

BIZLINKS - Rey Gamboa (The Philippine Star) - March 16, 2021 - 12:00am

Being an emerging new technology in the transport sector, battery production and use for electric vehicles (EVs) is drawing much scrutiny among environment and sustainability pundits, especially with increasing prospects of the world abandoning internal combustion engines (ICEs) powered by polluting fossil fuels.

Among the major concerns include the world availability of metals used in battery production, the clean recycling of the batteries, especially as more EVs come into the market, and safety in light of reports of burning and reigniting batteries.

Before we delve into a discussion of the above issues, the following indicators are proof of the growing acceptance of EVs for personal mobility.

Today, all major car manufacturers have at least one EV model in their product catalogs. Several have announced a total shift to EVs: General Motors will go all-electric by 2035, while Ford will only sell EVs in Europe by 2030.

More countries have announced the plan to ban sales of gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles by 2040 or sooner. The race to build more charging stations in on, the latest being US President Joe Biden’s announcement of plans to put in place 500,000 additional plugs this decade.

EVs being at its infancy stage, private vehicle owners continue to show reluctance in surrendering their fossil fuel-powered cars for EVs. But the epic rise in EV sales last year, especially in China where state support is high, exhibits immense potential of real mass-market breakthroughs.

Lastly, environmental politics is decidedly behind EVs. A new study by the European Federation for Transport and Environment (T&E) showed that EVs are far better for the climate, requiring 58 percent less energy than a petroleum-fueled car over their lifetime.

Metals and fossil fuels

In the move towards EV, the availability of battery metals takes most of the environmental and sustainability debate. Studies have extrapolated that lithium, cobalt, and nickel use for batteries will grow substantially from 2020 to 2050, putting pressure on current supply chains, as well as new resource discoveries.

The three metals mentioned are the dominant materials for cathodes of lithium-ion batteries (LIBs), currently the dominant type found in the most popular EVs. Supply risks are specifically high with cobalt since sources are concentrated in geopolitical areas.

EV manufacturers are more than aware of these metal supply risks and technology is fast evolving not only to lower the use of the above-mentioned metals, but also to find alternatives such as with lithium-sulfur and lithium-air batteries that use less cobalt and nickel.

Still, the T&E study weighs in on the metals-over-fossil fuel debate by stating that a battery will make up only up to 30 kilograms of raw material in an average car over its lifetime compared to 17,000 liters of gasoline or diesel burned up into the atmosphere.

This difference is expected to further increase, according to the T&E study, with technology driving down by half the amount of lithium needed to make a battery in the next decade, by three-fourths for cobalt, and by a fifth of nickel.

The study is significant to Europe, where T&E is based, because it will reverse the continent’s current situation where cars almost entirely depend on crude oil imports. The Philippines, which is also 100 percent dependent on imported fuels to run almost all of private vehicles, could draw some insights on this.

Currently, Europe is also poised to produce enough batteries to support its own EV market, according to T&E, with 22 battery giga-factories planned to operate within the decade, good enough for eight million electric cars.

Dealing with spent batteries

A global EV outlook for 2020 published by the International Energy Agency last June estimated 100 to 120 GWh of EV batteries would be retired by 2030. The need for effective measures, specifically country-specific policies, to handle spent batteries is needed to avoid any significant damage to the environment.

China and Europe now require EV manufacturers to accept spent batteries from their customers, but the rest of the world, including the US have splotchy producer responsibility laws.

More alarmingly, these countries have no regulations against exporting used lithium-ion batteries or selling used vehicles with degraded batteries to low- and middle-income countries that have poor environment safeguards or do not have facilities to recycle or process used batteries in an environmentally safe way.

As early as now, environment activists must take a more aggressive stance in calling for the adoption of measures that would tackle the disposal of spent batteries before the volume reaches monstrous proportions in the next decade. This would include coming up with guidelines on the second-use or recycling of spent EV batteries for vehicles to other sectors.

Better safeguards

As we are running out of space, let us tackle briefly the reported fire accidents involving EV batteries, particularly lithium-ions. Battery safety problems, without doubt, put passengers at risk – something that EV manufacturers are well aware of.

Battery safety technologies are similarly undergoing rapid improvements, starting with preventing thermal runaways – where all the batteries start to overheat and eventually catch fire – by ensuring that passengers are able to monitor their batteries’ condition at any point in the EVs’ life.

Still, better safeguards are needed, even while current studies on EV battery safety have put the current probability of accidents for EVs at a much lower rate than traditional ICE vehicles (0.9 to 1.2 per 10,000 vehicles in the former compared to 7.3 fire accidents per 10,000 vehicles in the US).

Hopefully, all the above has tackled the more pressing concerns about EV batteries. As new issues arise, we will address these in future columns.

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Should you wish to share any insights, write me at Link Edge, 25th Floor, 139 Corporate Center, Valero Street, Salcedo Village, 1227 Makati City. Or e-mail me at reydgamboa@yahoo.com. For a compilation of previous articles, visit www.BizlinksPhilippines.net.

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