Lithium-ion batteries are the most popular battery in use today. First commercialized in 1991, their cost has declined by a remarkable 97 percent over the last three decades, enabling the rapid growth of mobile phones, laptops and more recently, electric cars. Global demand for the batteries is projected to increase dramatically by the end of this decade, largely due to the growing adoption of electric vehicles (EVs) around the world.
More EVs is good news for the climate. After all, as a 2020 Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) analysis shows—and an updated, soon-to-be-released analysis will confirm—EVs’ lifecycle global warming emissions are dramatically lower than that of gas- and diesel-powered vehicles. But mining the materials used in EV batteries, including cobalt, lithium and nickel, comes with its own set of public-health, environmental and human-rights challenges. Despite EVs’ considerable environmental benefits, it will be imperative to “green” the material sourcing process to ensure a more sustainable and ethical supply chain as the world transitions to an electrified transportation system.
Fortunately, scientists are on the case. They are altering battery chemistries to reduce reliance on certain metals, such as cobalt, for example, and coming up with ways to recycle and repurpose batteries to minimize the need for new raw materials altogether.