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Dear Eartha, I’ve been hearing a lot of concerning information about electric car batteries. I’m interested in buying an EV as my next vehicle, but I want to do the right thing. What’s an environmentally-minded person to do? 

You know the quote, “The only thing constant in life is change?” (that’s Heraclitus, by the way). Keep that in mind because it’s absolutely true with electric vehicle (EV) technology. The battery industry of tomorrow is not the battery industry of today. Here’s a rundown of some of the exciting research going into batteries. 

Battery Technology Charges Ahead

EV batteries are already everywhere. How so? Because they’re just extra-large lithium-ion batteries – the same batteries that power our consumer electronics like laptops and phones. These batteries have traditionally relied on a mix of lithium, cobalt, copper, and nickel to work efficiently. But minerals must be mined, and mining anything has an impact. Cobalt extraction especially has been linked not only with environmental degradation but also human rights abuses. It also happens to be pretty expensive, which is why many battery and car manufacturers are interested in batteries that use far less cobalt – or none at all.

In fact, Tesla, Ford, and VW have all committed to – or are already –  offering vehicles with cobalt-free batteries. Tesla favors a lithium, iron, phosphate chemical mix. Other new battery chemistries are being studied, too, using sodium and sulfur…and even fibers from recycled bullet-proof vests.

What about lithium? The U.S. Department of Energy is investing in strategies to create a domestic lithium supply chain. Some companies are piloting projects that would extract lithium from mining waste and wastewater from geothermal energy production, meaning no new mines would be needed at all.

Towards a Circular Economy

Aside from changing battery chemistry, another potential breakthrough lies in battery recycling. In 2017, after 15 years as Tela’s Chief Technology Officer, JB Straubel founded Redwood Materials with a mission to make battery recycling mainstream. Straubel is banking on “urban mining” to provide the raw material needed for his company’s recycled batteries.

Urban mining? Kind of like Doc Brown powering his DeLorean with trash, that means mining our garages and junk drawers for an estimated 1 billion lithium-ion batteries in old phones and electronics – all containing valuable metals for recycling. Last year, Redwood collected enough material to produce 45,000 recycled car batteries. By redesigning batteries so the components can be easily separated, recycling has the potential to be more cost-effective than mining for virgin materials. A robust recycling industry could provide up to 25 percent of metals needed to produce batteries – not a silver bullet, but an important part of the EV future.

(Back to) The EV Future

Electric cars are expected to make up 34 percent of new car sales worldwide by 2030, according to BloombergNEF. Several car manufacturers – including Ford and GM – have announced that they’ll only sell EVs by 2035, meaning you’ll likely drive one someday. Ultimately, it could be the rise of electric cars that helps solve these battery challenges – simply because the increased demand has brought more attention to the issues. And it’s important to remember that reductions in greenhouse gas emissions aren’t the only benefit from EVs. Unlike gas-powered cars, EVs don’t produce harmful pollutants that cause ground-level ozone and smog. The American Lung Association thinks that’s a huge win for air quality.

The thing about the environmental impact of EV batteries is that it’s obvious. Mines are really hard to ignore. But let’s not forget the conflict and environmental catastrophes caused by fossil fuel production. And climate change still presents a far greater threat to us – and the ecosystems we live in – than mining for lithium or cobalt. The World Health Organization considers climate change the “single biggest health threat to humanity.” Swiss Re, one of the world’s largest reinsurance companies, calls it the “biggest long-term threat to the global economy.”

This doesn’t mean we should turn a blind eye to the environmental, social, or cultural tolls wrought by mining for the metals needed in our EV – and phone and computer – batteries; strong safeguards are needed to create a sustainable supply-chain. But it’s a reminder that everything we do has an impact. The choice we’re left with is how much of an impact to have.