At the end of April the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) posted a report on the environmental lifecycle assessment of the lithium ion batteries used in electric vehicles, with an eye to helping battery manufacturers choose safer materials and processes. The report, in the words of EPA officials, “also reviews the potential impacts of a nanotechnology innovation that could improve battery performance.”
Developed in partnership with the Dept. of Energy, the lithium-ion battery industry, and academics, the report is part of the EPA’s under-radar Design for the Environment (DFE) Program. The program was established in 1992 to “encourage businesses to incorporate environmental concerns into their business decisions,” according to the EPA study.
Better Products via Government Cooperation!
The idea of the program is to promote “risk reduction, green chemistry, pollution prevention, energy efficiency, and other resource-conserving measures through materials and process choices at a facility or industry sector level,” via cooperative industry partnerships to “identify and evaluate more environmentally sound materials, processes, and technologies.”
Products that are more clean, cost-effective, and safe can earn an ecolabel, EPA officials say, adding that the label’s logo has been “updated for easier use.” The program does have 2,800 participating products, but is confined “largely in the institutional markets,” according to James J. Jones, acting assistant administrator for the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention within the EPA.
EPA officials say this is the first time such a study for electric car batteries has been done. The report’s authors say it included conducting “a screening-level lifecycle assessment (LCA) of currently manufactured lithium-ion battery technologies for electric vehicles, and a next-generation battery component (anode) that uses single-walled carbon nanotube (SWCNT) technology.”
Nice, but could it be greener?
The quantitative environmental LCA of lithium-ion batteries was conducted “using primary data from both battery manufacturers and recyclers, and the nanotechnology anode currently being researched for next-generation batteries.”
Demand for electrical cars is increasing… well, kind of. In mid-April CNBC reported that since 2011, 50,000 plug-in cars have been sold in the U.S. For comparison purposes, about 30,000 cars are sold every day in America. So it’s not like electrical cars are swamping the market.
Nevertheless, the Obama Administration is convinced that plug-in electric cars are the wave of the future, so we need to learn how to build better, safer, cleaner batteries for them.
Recycling’s Tough, So Make Them Greener.
Last month I wrote about how batteries in electric cars can’t be handled via the recycling processes already used by auto manufacturers. EV batteries are hugely more complex to build, can weigh up to 550 pounds and require many more ingredients. Hence the push to manufacture them more eco-friendly in the first place.
Basically what we have here is the government trying to “mitigate current and future impacts and risks by helping battery manufacturers and suppliers identify which materials and processes are likely to pose the greatest impacts or potential risks to public health or the environment throughout the life cycle of their products,” as DfE officials put it.
Great. So what do the study actually set out to do?
Specifically, it identifies ways producers can reduce lifecycle environmental impacts for the lithium-ion batteries they make for electric vehicles, by giving them information about materials and processes that result in fewer impacts.
It also evaluates a cool nanotechnology innovation, the single-walled carbon nanotube.
The Key Results and Conclusions.
With those objectives, then, the study reaches three conclusions.
First, batteries using cathodes with nickel and cobalt, “as well as solvent-based electrode processing,” are, unsurprisingly, the worst culprits for such nasty environmental impacts as using up resources, ecological toxicity, and other assorted human health issues. And the main problem is the “production, processing, and use of cobalt and nickel metal compounds.”
The fact that nickel is essential in electric vehicle (EV) batteries has long been an inconvenient truth for greenies. The Prius has been criticized in the past for the fact that the nickel contained in its battery was “mined and smelted at a plant in Ontario that has caused so much environmental damage to the surrounding environment that NASA has used the ‘dead zone’ around the plant to test moon rovers.” The plant has spread sulfur dioxide across northern Ontario, and the “acid rain around the area was so bad it destroyed all the plants and the soil slid down off the hillside.”
To reduce such havoc the study recommended cathode material substitution, solvent-less electrode processing and recycling of metals from the batteries: “The solvent-less process was found to have lower energy use and lower potential environmental and health impacts.”
Secondly, the study concluded that many of the environmental and health impacts of battery production weren’t necessarily from the materials used in the batteries themselves,but were “shown to be influenced by the electricity grids used to charge the batteries prior to vehicle operation.”
Specifically, the study found, “the ‘use stage’ is an important driver of impacts for the lifecycle of the battery, particularly when batteries are used with more carbon-intensive grids.”
In other words, if the electricity used to charge your car’s battery was created by coal-fired plants, which a substantial portion of American electricity is, then your EV isn’t doing the environment any favors.
As The New York Times wrote last year, “with electric power generated from a high proportion of coal — as it is in a wide swath of the country’s midsection — an electric car or a plug-in hybrid will generate slightly more full-cycle global-warming emissions … than the best gasoline-engine subcompact.”
The SWCNT technology is promising in that it could improve “the energy density and ultimate performance of the lithium-ion batteries in vehicles,” the report finds, adding that, however, “the energy needed to produce these anodes in these early stages of development is significant (i.e., may outweigh potential energy efficiency benefits in the use stage).”
Among other conclusions, the study recommends simply increasing the lifetime of the battery. Put simply, the longer the batteries last the less environmental impact there is. And when you do have to make new batteries, the report suggests using recycled material. Using recovered materials instead of virgin materials, “especially metals,” the study notes, really helps lower the overall negative impact.
The study concludes by conceding that yeah, no matter what happens in the factory itself or what ingredients are used in making the battery, “the biggest contributor to most impact categories, larger in most cases than the upstream, and component and battery manufacturing stages combined, was the electricity grid.”
Bottom line: Electric cars are really only as environmentally-friendly as the electricity used to charge them, and their batteries are no exception: They’re only as environmentally-friendly as the power used to produce them.
This article was originally published on ThomasNet News and is reprinted in its entirety with permission from Thomas Industrial Network. For more stories like this please visit ThomasNet.com.