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Do lithium-ion batteries really deserve a Nobel Prize as a foundation of a fuel-free society?

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Brine pools of SQM lithium mine on the Atacama salt flat, Chile
Brine pools of SQM lithium mine on the Atacama salt flat, Chile -
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When the Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry to the three scientists who invented lithium-ion batteries this week, they paid tribute to the role their creation had in the “foundation of a wireless, fossil-fuel-free society.”

But while I have nothing against the venerable scientists John B. Goodenough, M. Stanley Whittingham, and Akira Yoshino, the decision raises questions about the Swedish Academy of Sciences’ commitment to environmental protection.

Although electric cars - along with electric bicycles and scooters - are very much part of our landscape in 2019, and will play a key role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, there are plenty of alternatives, including hydrogen cars, biogas and biofuel.

The ‘wireless society’ that the Nobel jury celebrates is generating enormous amounts of waste, including plastics, with the exponential spread of disposable devices. Not to mention the CO2 cost of storing and treating the massive amounts of data the "wireless society" produces.

That lithium-ion batteries have changed our society is undeniable, but if nothing is done about the environmental cost of extracting the raw metals needed and to recycle and reuse, batteries could well become the next great environmental crisis after the greenhouse effect.

Recycling: not quite there yet, and a greenhouse gases source

Even the awarded Akira Yoshino has raised these questions: speaking to the press he stated that the key for the future of electric mobility is figuring out how to fully recycle batteries, and we are not there yet.

Currently, the industry wants to improve the recycling cycle to insure against supply chain uncertainties, rather than due to environmental concerns.

Lithium-ion electric vehicles batteries are mostly recycled in Asia, with China leading by 70% according to experts, but a lot of the materials are not recovered - depending on the specific recycling type - and the process is not without environmental hazards.

China and South Korea lead the recycling market because, as they lead the world's manufacturing of batteries, they realise it is an opportunity to be less dependant on imports of the raw materials, the price of which has increased with global increase in demand.

While some companies in Europe and North America are involved in recycling batteries, the numbers are tiny compared to the amount used.

"Although lithium increasingly is recycled and even refined into battery-grade material, the amounts are still very small to have any effect on the total lithium market,” the Global Battery Alliance reported recently.

“The situation is the same for metals such as nickel, aluminium and copper. The exception is cobalt."

Hans Eric Melin, Circular Energy Storage
Electric Vehicles batteries on the market, at end-of-life and available for recyclingHans Eric Melin, Circular Energy Storage

According to a recent evaluation of the European Batteries Directive, the costs of collection, safe storage and transport of collected waste batteries "may offset the benefits of recycling.”

“The volatility of metal scrap prices is a concern for recyclers who may question the merits of continuing recycling activities whose profitability is uncertain".

The report concludes that what keeps the collection system running is the "obligation".

In addition to that, most recycling processes are focused not on ensuring materials recovery "but as a way to remove dangerous substances from industrial cycles" reads the evaluation.

"Recycling lithium batteries, emits high amounts of greenhouse gas emissions result from the pyrometallurgical process" warns the report. "The refining of copper, cobalt and nickel is also energy-intensive and produces additional greenhouse gas emissions" but the recycling of cobalt and nickel "totally or partially compensates for this increase in emissions".

Other issues pointed by the evaluation is the lack of complete information of the lifetime of batteries, and the lack of a clear chain of responsibilities and specific obligations for the lithium-ion batteries (currently classified as "other batteries" with no particular regulation).

The report found out that the recycling efficiency target for these batteries set by the Directive is only 50%. And according to the latest Eurostat data, the EU only collects for recycling 46% of the batteries sold.

Extraction of metals at a dramatic human and environmental costs

The main reason for the shy improvements in recycling is the difficulties to keep the extraction of metals needed at the fast demand pace. "Recyclers also reminded us that their activity is not only driven by legal considerations or policies but mostly by economic considerations" states the EU Commission report.

The high social and environmental costs of rare-earth and metals like cobalt are well documented.

"In a 100% electric vehicle world, the commodity [cobalt] demand will increase by ~2,000%" according to a UBS research.

Cobalt mining has polluted large areas in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the main producer, and other areas of Central Africa "Besides, Co is highly toxic and directly impacts human health, given that there is an elevated Co exposure in the general population of southern D.R. Congo" reads an article on the matter by geochemist Olivier Pourret.

Olivier Pourret
Global cobalt production in kt (data collected from mineral commodity summaries yearly published by USGS)Olivier PourretCereceda, Rafael

"Extracting activities are responsible for most — but not all — virgin materials used in batteries, especially for metals like lead, lithium or cobalt. These activities are often associated with very negative environmental impacts depending on the material extracted, the site and the technology applied. There can be emissions of hazardous substances from extractive facilities (e.g. pyrometallurgical or hydrometallurgical processes) during the production stage" says the EU Commission report, warning also about the "prone to disruptions" supply chain for cobalt "which will likely persist in the future".

The European Union promotes a European Battery Alliance to reduce its dependence on this soon-strategic industry.

Lithium is a bit easier to extract and the mining less concentrated geographically, but not without consequences for the environment. It's extracted from salt, in Chile, but at a cost of using huge amounts of water.

"In Chile’s Salar de Atacama, mining activities consumed 65 percent of the region’s water" found a Wired investigation. Lithium extraction also carries chemical hazards risks. "The extraction of lithium has significant environmental and social impacts, especially due to water pollution and depletion" NGO Friends of Earth stated in 2013.

So do the lithium-ion batteries deserve a Nobel prize?

Julia Poliscanova, director of the clean vehicles section at the European Transport & Environment lobby -very combative on fossil fuels- said yes.

"The Nobel prize recognizes the crucial role the lithium-ion battery is playing in our lives, not least in the coming years when it will help to decarbonise transport, the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Europe. The small quantity of minerals that a battery uses allows us to drive a car for 10 years or more while not burning thousands of litres of oil."

"But it's up to us to use this invention responsibly by making sure only clean power is used in their energy-intensive production. We must also require recycling of the key metals, over 90% of which can be recovered. Europe's lawmakers should also only give vehicle and battery makers a license to sell lithium-ion batteries if they can show the minerals were sourced ethically and in compliance with international labor standards."

A spokesperson for Greenpeace Spain agreed that the Nobel Prize is recognizing the role of lithium-ion batteries on clean and safe electricity use. "A function for which they will be essential in the decarbonization of transport, increasingly necessary.

But the spokesperson pointed out that it was an oil company - Exxon - that first bet on developing new battery technology - and this same company now blocks its development since the burning of fossil fuels has become profitable.

"Over 40 years later, we continue to ask large corporations to promote the development of non-polluting energy sources, instead of extending the use of fossil fuels".

"Today, batteries still have to face certain sustainability challenges, such as metals recycling and extraction that respects the environment and social rights. But there is no doubt that they will be a key element in reducing emissions" said Greenpeace Spain.

On its message to euronews Greenpeace Spain stated recalled that green transport is not simply replacing gasoline and diesel-powered cars with electric but reducing our reliance on the car altogether.

Benjamin Hitchcock, a researcher for London Mining Network highlights the heavy impacts of lithium extraction on indigenous communities in Argentina and Chile "we must stand in solidarity with these communities and not allow their ancestral territories to become sacrifice zones in the name of a wireless and fossil-fuel-free society". He also finds it unfortunate that "growing lithium demand is driven by the perpetuation of a model based on largely unnecessary consumption" mainly on the richest Countries. He considers that a fair transition needs structural transformations "beyond changing one technology for another".

So in view of all of the previous, it might worth considering diversifying energy sources, as we have seen where we've got by putting all the eggs in the fossil-fuel-and-disposable-devices basket.