When Coldplay stepped out in front of a packed Wembley Stadium last year, the power for the lights illuminating their screaming fans came from old electric car batteries. The band had collected used BMW i3 batteries for its world tour, to spread a message that is now being heard across automotive boardrooms: nothing should go to waste.
While batteries are at the heart of the auto industry’s attempts to cut emissions, they also present a significant headache.
Churning out emissions while mining battery materials and then processing them in the manufacturing stage runs against the industry’s drive to become more “circular”.
Ultimately, unless battery recycling and reuse becomes widespread, environmentalists worry that the shift to electric vehicles will still require too many resources to be extracted from the earth.
“If we want to decarbonise upstream emissions, it would have an impact if we reuse and reuse and reuse, so [that] we use less material,” says Angela Hultberg, global sustainability director at Kearney, a consultancy. “A completely circular approach to the materials used, from a ‘rethink, redesign, recycle’ point of view, obviously will lower emissions.”
Manufacturers are already seeking to reuse more as they edge towards a circular approach to sourcing. Projects range from Ford turning ocean-bobbing plastics into seat parts, to BMW forcing suppliers to use only recycled materials when producing “new” parts.
But, as electric vehicle sales take off, the industry desperately needs to secure and use millions more batteries. Finding ways to reduce emissions from battery use — whether by recycling older materials or cutting reliance on minerals that are environmentally damaging to extract — is key.
While electric vehicles do not have exhaust pipes, they still incur overall lifetime emissions, from the source of energy they charge with to the mines that extract lithium for batteries.
“We need to ensure that emissions aren’t shifting from the tailpipe to the power plant,” explains Anisa Costa, head of sustainability at electric vehicle maker Rivian. The start-up is installing solar panels on all its charging stations to cut reliance on a fossil-dependent power grid.
Like its peers, it is also seeking answers to the “complex equation” of how it meets consumer demand for long-range batteries, while also cutting the amount of material in each battery.
As Fredrika Klarén, head of sustainability at electric-car maker Polestar, puts it: “Do we just extend the battery range for the sake of it, knowing that we’re adding CO₂ to the production of the battery?” Polestar plans to make a zero-emission car by 2030.
Hultberg notes that there are more circular economy initiatives in the automotive industry, but adds: “What we need to see is those projects becoming bigger scale programmes for the entire industry.”
Kearney has developed a model showing what the car industry must do to cut its emissions in line with the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial temperature levels — and the result is stark: all new car sales must go electric by 2032; all energy use must become fully renewable by 2033; and supply chain emissions need to fall by 81 per cent by 2032. “These are the facts,” says Hultberg.
Even getting to all-electric vehicle sales by this date would mean a vast increase in mines.
According to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, a data group, current mines are capable of producing around 685,000 tonnes of lithium. This is enough for only 15.5mn electric vehicles, it calculates. Even by 2033, only an additional 1.2mn tonnes will become available, given current projected mine openings and development timetables.
The industry faces a “sobering reality about some of the critical materials” used to make battery cells, says Toyota’s chief scientist, Gill Pratt. The Japanese carmaker’s approach is to divert the batteries into hybrids, where they impact the greatest number of vehicles and achieve better average emissions.
“Besides utilising their batteries better, [hybrids]are also more affordable,” said Pratt, at a recent conference to explain the strategy. “They’re easier to recycle, and they don’t require charging infrastructure.”
Other alternative approaches may also allow the industry to eke out limited resources.
Francisco Carranza, who runs Basque battery start-up Basquevolt, says developing new technology to improve battery density and efficiency is vital. Optimising the raw materials needed should be “very high on the agenda because it is also a way of reducing the dependency on these raw materials,” he says.
But higher power density means higher cost, and is not the only consideration carmakers have when sourcing materials.
Lithium iron phosphate (LFP), an older technology, is increasingly popular, both because of its low cost and also because it cuts reliance on materials, such as cobalt, that draw criticism for the harsh working conditions where they are mined. LFP has a lower energy density and potentially lower range, but “actually has a better lifetime”, explains James Nicholson, partner at EY, the professional services firm.
Using batteries with lower energy density will ultimately make lithium go further.
Another solution is to reclaim used batteries. “The focus has very often been on the quantity of what you recycle . . . and we probably need to see a shift so the quality we recover is good enough to be reused in the automotive sector,” says Céline Domecq, director of public affairs at Volvo Cars. “[Batteries] need to be very durable, so they can last and so they can be exposed to a very difficult situation temperature-wise.”
Pratt, at Toyota, says: “We want to distribute the limited supply of battery materials where they will reduce carbon emissions as much as possible, as soon as possible.”