• Climate hub
  • 8 Jun 2022
  • 10 min read

The future of EV batteries

By Joanna Jefferies and Chris Mirams

For the moment, the lithium-ion battery is at the heart of decarbonising transport. By the end of the decade, that may change.

The battery is the most important, and expensive, component of an EV. But concerns persist over mining the raw materials needed to make them, whether they can deliver the performance and range needed to drive mass adoption and what to do with them at end of life. This has made the development of a simpler, better, cheaper battery the new gold rush among car makers.

If you’re thinking about buying an electric car, the issues around batteries raises the question of do you buy now or wait until the technology is more settled?

Should I buy an electric car now or wait for better batteries?

With only a small second-hand market to dip your toe into first, you’re looking at a significant outlay to boost your green credentials, on top of the cost of fitting out your garage for charging. With the scale of investment being made to find alternative battery technologies you have to weigh up the risk of buying now and potentially getting lumped with a technology that could be outdated fairly quickly.   Demand for lithium has outstripped supply, pushing prices up almost 500% in a year. The shortage has become so bad that in China, which makes about 80% of the world’s lithium-ion batteries, the government has demanded suppliers and manufacturers make ‘a rational return’ to lower prices. All this, and the manufacturing of EVs is nowhere near the levels needed to decarbonise transport across the world.

As Bloomberg recently noted, lithium ‘is in a full-blown crisis’ while Tesla’s mercurial owner, Elon Musk, tweeted in April “Price of lithium has gone to insane levels! Tesla might actually have to get into the mining & refining directly at scale, unless costs improve.”

Lithium-ion batteries are likely to dominate the market this decade, but by 2030 it’s expected other alternatives will be available.

Will today's electric cars soon be obsolete?

Are EV batteries bad for the environment?

The green credentials of electric vehicles have long been questioned due largely to the production of the battery.

The environmental impact in sourcing the key elements of lithium, cobalt and nickel has long caused concern. It takes, on average, about eight to 10 metric tonnes of carbon to produce an electric vehicle. It is labour-intensive, requires chemicals and enormous amounts of water—frequently from areas where water is scarce – and toxic waste can be left behind.  It’s estimated that for every tonne of mined lithium, 15 tonnes of CO2 are emitted into the air. This compares to about seven metric tonnes of CO2 to manufacture an ICE vehicle. The bigger the battery – needed to improve performance and range – the bigger the emissions.

Lithium-ion mining has increased 58% in the past decade due to it also being the power source used in mobile phones, laptops, and other electronic goods. Some side effects of the mining are also an issue. For example, on the salt flats in the Andean regions of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile where half of the global resources are located – known as the Lithium Triangle - large amounts of water are needed, depleting the supply to indigenous farmers and herders in the area.

Mining super-powers Australia, Canada and China are actively looking for new deposits to tap into, but they are racing the clock. Tesla can build a gigafactory in about two years, but it can take up to 10 years to build a greenfield lithium brine project.

Other components needed are also problematic. Mining the cobalt creates hazardous tailings that can leach into the soil and present a risk to local communities, while extracting the metal from its ore requires smelting, a process which emits pollutants into the air. 

Is there enough raw material for electric car batteries?

Bets are already being made on alternative raw materials.

European energy research company Rystad Energy expects nickel-based battery chemistries to hold the largest share of the market by 2030, slightly ahead of iron-based batteries, with other solutions trailing far behind.

Tightening supply of nickel could become an issue as car manufacturers will have to compete with the steel industry that accounts for more than 70% of current global nickel and demand is expected to grow at about 5% per year. The battery market made up less than 10% of global nickel demand in 2020 but is poised to explode. Batteries alone could require more than two million tonnes of nickel metal by 2030, compared to last year’s total global supply of about 2.3 tonnes.

Are electric cars REALLY better for the environment?

How do you measure the environmental impact of an EV battery?

It’s important to consider not only the environmental impact of the manufacture of EV batteries, but also the use phase and the recycling phase.

According to a recent study, the emissions from the manufacturing of a lithium-ion battery were estimated to be 3.2 tonnes, which is higher than that of a lead battery.

The emissions for recycling an EV battery are higher than that of a lead battery. However, in the same study, when the life cycle of emissions of the two types of cars were taken into account, the EV had 18% less emissions than the fossil-fuelled car.

That’s because in the use phase, the emissions from an electric car depends on how much electricity comes from renewable or fossil resources. In New Zealand, 40% of our energy come from renewable energy, so the environmental impact is much lower during the use phase.

Can EV batteries be reused?

The life cycle of an EV battery should be between 10 and 20 years.

There are several options for a battery nearing the end of its life cycle, the most sustainable of which is to extend the lifespan. This may include refurbishing or repurposing.

According to researchers at Cornell University in the USA,  the carbon footprint of a lithium-ion EV battery can be reduced by as much as 17% if it is reused before being recycled.

Could there be a second hand EV battery market?

Carmakers are also looking at how they can reuse them. In one of Audi’s German factories, second-hand lithium-ion batteries are reused on their factory forklifts and tugs. Nissan plans to use old electric car batteries for mobile emergency power supplies in the aftermath of natural disasters. Renault is looking to provide a second life for used EV batteries as home energy storage units. They would not only provide a back-up in the event of an outage, but also help to balance the grid through the transition to less reliable, renewable sources of energy. 

In New Zealand, there are many businesses who replace cells in batteries, but if they can’t be refurbished, they can probably still be repurposed, for example, to store electricity from solar PV panels.

The Motor Industry Association of New Zealand (MIA) has committed to keeping EV and hybrid batteries out of landfill, by looking for ways to refurbish, reuse, recycle or dispose of them.

Solving EV's Biggest Problem - Battery Recycling Explained - YouTube

Solving EV's biggest problem - battery recycling explained

By 2030, it’s predicted that more than 30,000 EV batteries will come to the end of their life each year in New Zealand, so it’s crucial that we manage their end-of-life material recovery so that we don’t wind up with batteries in landfills.

Currently there are small-scale battery recycling facilities in New Zealand that have the capability to extract the different materials contained in lithium-ion batteries. Once extracted, these materials are sent offshore to be reused.

It’s important that we have our own facilities for recycling, as batteries can ignite while on route if they aren’t properly dismantled. As the demand for EV recycling increases, the industry looks set to follow suit.

The Battery Industry Group (B.I.G) has developed a draft framework for the sustainable disposal of large lithium-ion batteries. When approved, it will mean there will be a disposal fee for EV batteries, which will subsidise processing and material recovery at the battery’s end-of-life.

Offshore, the largest lithium-ion battery recyclers are based in China. Competition is so intense for dead batteries that recyclers are willing to pay for them. Batteries are melted and their metals extracted, often done in large commercial facilities requiring significant amounts of energy creating carbon emissions.

Can EV batteries be repaired?

In many cases, even if they have lost up to 95% power, EV batteries can be restored, refurbished, and reused. On the other hand, if you need a lower cost replacement battery, you can speak to a battery supplier about having a refurbished battery installed.  

Can EV batteries catch fire?

There is a risk of lithium-ion batteries catching fire, even if it is rare. The reason they sometimes do is if the electrolyte, which carries trillions of charged lithium ions between the electrodes and the separator, is damaged or compromised, it won’t stop the positive electrodes from coming into contact with the negative electrodes, thereby increasing the risk of fire.

While the risk is small, it does happen. In March 2022, a Tesla caught fire and burned for hours after running off a road in California. And last year, General Motors had to warn owners of Chevy Bolts that they couldn’t park their cars indoors after some vehicles caught fire while charging.

Last year, American insurance company, AutoInsuranceEZ, studied the frequency of fires from all causes including collisions. It found that hybrid vehicles, which have an internal combustion engine and an electric motor, had the most fires per 100,000 vehicles (3,475), while vehicles with just an internal combustion engine placed second (1,530 per 100,000). Fully electric vehicles had the fewest: 25 per 100,000. These findings were based on data from the National Transportation Safety Board and the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

What will replace lithium batteries? 

Start-ups, battery specialists and carmakers are doing a ton of work on developing alternatives for lithium EV batteries.

Sodium

Sodium – essentially salt – has a similar chemical make-up to lithium but doesn’t carry the same environmental impact for extracting it. This technology is being developed and looks to be making headway, with Tesla’s battery supplier CATL starting production of sodium-ion batteries this year.

However, sodium batteries have lower cell voltage than lithium batteries and because sodium is three times heavier than lithium, the batteries weigh a lot more, reducing their efficacy.

General Motors (GM) has developed a new chemistry for a battery pack called Ultium that it will be using across a new range of EV that reduces the cobalt content by 70%. They believe this will significantly reduce the cost of the battery, and therefore the cost of the EV.

Solid state batteries

Solid-state batteries offer one of the most promising future alternatives. In addition to greatly reducing the risk of fire, a solid-state battery allows for more energy dense battery packs with a longer-life expectancy and even faster charging. According to Toyota, who is investing heavily in this, solid state batteries could be in production for hybrids as early as 2025.

Other alternatives

A myriad of unconventional technologies are being investigated and trialled. These include aluminium air batteries that have been shown to last 1700 kms on a single charge; ultra-sound charging; Wi-Fi powered batteries; sand batteries; seawater batteries, and many more exciting new innovations that should see EV vehicles become cheaper and far more sustainable.

There’s also a strong push into hydrogen powered vehicles including hydrogen fuel cells.

How the next batteries will change the world

So, should you buy an EV now or wait for better battery technology?

It’s clear with the level of investment being made in the future of the EV battery that alternatives will emerge. With carmakers investing significantly in battery technology and shifting their production priorities to EV’s, those alternatives may be available before 2030 or shortly after.

Other options are also on the way.

Chinese start-up, Nio, is also taking its battery swapping technology and business model to the world and expects to be in 25 countries by 2025. It has 868 swap stations in China and claims customers have swapped batteries 7.6 million times. Battery swapping stations let owners replace a spent battery for a full one in around five minutes. Nio opened its first battery swap station in Norway in January 2022 and aims to install 20 in the country. EV owners sign a lease for a battery which in turn can reduce the upfront cost of the vehicle. Two free swaps a month are included in the battery lease fee. 

NIO battery swapping station launches in Norway

Leasing an EV here is also an option, as opposed to shelling out big money to buy. Here, Zilch offers that for private users through its subscription model. So, if you’re hesitant about dipping the hand into the deep pockets you’ll need for an electric car now, you can reasonably expect it to be cheaper to do so in the not-too-distant future.

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