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Positives, negatives charge EV battery plants

Greg Smith, Engineering Group Manager, Electrification, with a Chevrolet Bolt EV battery pack in General Motors Global Battery Systems Laboratory at the GM Technical Center in Warren, Michigan, Tuesday, April 5, 2016. (Photo by Jeffrey Sauger for General Motors)

First of a two-part series

WARREN — The United States could be on the cusp of a revolution in electric vehicles, made possible with the lithium-ion batteries used in everything from smartphones and laptops to vehicles.

And while electric-vehicle car batteries have traditionally been made and recycled in other parts of the world, such as Asia and Europe, with the announcement that LG Chem and General Motors are teaming up for an EV battery manufacturing plant in the Mahoning Valley — LG Chem’s second in the U.S. — the area is poised to enter the EV battery supply chain.

But what are the environmental impacts of lithium-ion battery production?

The batteries require large amounts of energy to produce and to recycle, battery recycling is an under-developed industry lacking profit incentives and the mining of virgin metals such as lithium and cobalt is often associated with environmental and human damage. But, electric vehicles do produce fewer carbon emissions over a lifetime of use than traditional vehicles.

Also, steps are being made to improve the lithium-ion battery recycling process in hopes of growing the now-tedious recycling process into a profitable American industry that could lower the cost to make batteries, lowering the cost of electric vehicles and allowing the U.S. to become less dependent on foreign mines and exploitative labor for the expensive metals.

The process requires a considerable amount of water in dry regions such as Chile, where Lithiummine.com — an online resource for Lithium mining — estimates extracting the metal takes two-thirds of the area’s fresh drinking water.

MINING AND HUMAN RIGHTS

A Washington Post article also points to tensions between indigenous people and lithium mining companies, which often pay villages a sum — which is small next to the companies’ profits — for land and water rights to mine lithium. While company leaders argue their presence brings jobs and investments and the money they provide is often used to further education, some indigenous people report feeling that they aren’t getting their cut of the element that has been called “white gold.” Additionally, growing concerns over the high demand and limited supply of water have left some communities fearing for their way of life.

The environmental network Friends of the Earth Europe reports that lithium mining has caused water-related conflicts in areas such as the community of Tocoano in the north of Chile.

The mining of cobalt, another component element used in EV batteries like those LG Chem and GM will be producing, also poses human rights concerns.

LG Chem’s 2018 sustainability report says 60 percent of the “very rare mineral” is produced from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where child labor is used in the mining process.

Human rights organization Amnesty International brought attention to the use of child labor in cobalt mining in 2016, and since then companies have been making efforts to buy cobalt from other regions, driving the price of the mineral up, according to the LG Chem report.

MINING AND ENVIRONMENT

Lithium is considered a rare element, found in many rocks and some brines but almost always in very low concentrations, according to the “Handbook of Lithium and Natural Calcium Chloride.” The element does not naturally occur in its pure form because it is highly radioactive and also reacts with water.

The lithium used in batteries is produced either through hard rock mining or the more cost-effective and efficient salt-brine mining, according to Lithiummine.com.

The site reports that in 2010 in the U.S. alone the demand for industry-grade lithium was more than 102,000 tons — and that number is expected to reach 320,000 tons by 2020, in large part because of a projected increase in the production of electric vehicles. However, the U.S. only produces a small percent of lithium.

Most lithium is found mostly in Andean countries, according to FOE Europe. Though Bolivia has the most abundant lithium resources, Chile currently leads industrial production.

To mine lithium, holes are drilled into the salt flats and the brine is pumped to the surface, leaving it to be evaporated in ponds,where lithium carbonate can be extracted through a chemical process, according to FOE Europe. A 2018 scholarly article, “Lithium recovery from brines” estimates the practice evaporates on average half a million liters of brine per ton of lithium carbonate.

“Furthermore, the extraction is chemical intensive, extremely slow, and delivers large volumes of waste,” reads the article. The high volume of water used in lithium mining gives rise to water pollution and resource depletion, according to FOE Europe, and the toxic chemicals needed to process lithium pose danger to the environment through spills or emissions.

However, some reports indicate lithium mining is less contaminating than the mining of many other minerals.

REUSING AND RECYCLING

Less than 5 percent of lithium ion batteries today are recycled, according to LG Chem.

While the batteries in old smart phones and laptops are easier to recycle in the U.S. than electric car batteries, most of the batteries are tossed in a landfill or left in a household drawer never to see new life in a new device, said Jeff Spangenberger, director of the ReCell Center.

ReCell is the U.S. Department of Energy’s $15 million lithium-ion battery recycling center at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois. The center is focused on perfecting the methods for recycling the components of the the batteries so it will be more profitable to run recycling centers in the U.S., he said.

That won’t be a problem with the much larger car batteries — they will be much more likely to end up in a facility, Spangenberger said.

But, lithium-ion electric vehicle batteries didn’t start showing up in America until about 2011, and because the batteries usually have a warranty of about eight years, there hasn’t been a huge demand for the specialized recycling processes required to reclaim lithium and cobalt, Spangenberger said.

Now that some of the first batteries out there are expected to encounter end-of-life failures, the need for recycling is expected to “grow really fast” and the question is if the infrastructure can keep up, Spangenberger said.

The only U.S. facility Spangenberger knows of capable of handling the extraction of the components from the EV batteries is in Ohio, he said. Retriev Technologies is based in Lancaster with locations and affiliates in other parts of the country and in Canada.

“The rest of the recyclers are in other countries. We are trailing other countries in infrastructure when it comes to batteries. But that is changing. People are seeing the opportunity so they are putting together plans to set up recycling facilities,” Spangenberger said.

rfox@tribtoday.com

avugrincic@tribtoday.com

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