The race to make EV batteries sustainable

While numerous governments and automakers have recently announced ambitious plans to transition to emission-free vehicles, many lack a clear road map to where the millions of EV batteries necessary are going to come from. 

Countries are running out of time—and resources—to produce enough batteries to satisfy this new consumer demand. As a result, everywhere from the deep sea to the shallow Salton Sea is being plundered for minerals to prepare for this shift in policies.

The U.S. is facing an EV battery shortage as automakers ramp up production in order to meet the Biden administration’s goal of making half of all new vehicles sold in the country battery electric, plug-in hybrid electric, or fuel cell electric. 

“Many of the battery materials today do not have a supply chain that’s sustainable,” said Venkat Srinivasan, director of the Argonne Collaborative Center for Energy Storage Science.

“The materials we are using should be easily available from the earth, energy efficient to remove, and the mining should not be problematic in terms of labor practices,” he noted. “Recycling is an integral part of sustainable [production]—and if we don’t get there soon, we are going to have problems.”

As the global race to transition to clean energy vehicles and carbon-neutral transportation accelerates, the focus on how quickly the world can produce sustainably and ethically sourced electric vehicle (EV) batteries has also sharpened. 

Without altering the supply chain, revolutionizing recycling technologies, and investing in alternative battery research, experts warn, supplies will rapidly dwindle as the science behind these alternatives is still catching up.

The ‘best year yet’

In 2020, EV sales surged by 38% compared with the year before, according to Wood Mackenzie, an energy research firm. Their researchers also predict 2021 will be the “best year yet”  for electric vehicles, with one in 20 passenger car sales estimated to be electric. 

This marked change in consumer demand has been driven by several factors: government and state requirements for cleaner energy vehicles, a greater awareness of climate change, a desire to do something about it, as well as EVs becoming more cost-competitive with their petrol-fueled counterparts.  

But the demand for lithium and other battery materials is growing faster than supply chains can satisfy, and a grab for lithium in particular is leaving scientists and car manufacturers scrambling for alternatives.

“There is a lot of lithium in the U.S.—and the world—and we might be able to increase the mining to satisfy demand, but there’s just not enough nickel or cobalt in the States to sustain demand,” said Srinivasan, noting the country is already beginning to see issues with sourcing battery materials. “When you start looking at the commercialization of lithium batteries, there is a significant supply chain problem we need to think about.”

Lithium-ion batteries’ dominance

A typical electric vehicle contains around 5,000 battery cells. Although nickel-cobalt-aluminum and iron-phosphate batteries have been used in the past, lithium-ion batteries (LIBs), which also contain nickel, graphite, cobalt, and manganese, have become the de facto choice for many manufacturers owing to their high-energy density and lightweight attributes.

Lithium has been so effective that developing alternatives is tough, acknowledged Jodie Lutkenhaus, a professor of chemical engineering at Texas A&M University who is researching new and more sustainable substitutes for lithium. “It is really hard to beat the sweet spot that lithium-ion batteries have carved out for themselves.”

Even lithium has proved controversial, however. Lithium mining has been linked to contaminated water, drought, and toxic chemical leaks.

Controlled Thermal Resources, a U.S.-based company, is looking to capitalize on the lithium rush through geothermal extraction, which the company said is more eco-friendly than other mining methods.

“CTR’s process is more environmentally sustainable in many ways compared to hard-rock open-pit mining and evaporation ponds,” says global director Tracy Sizemore. “The traditional paths require significantly more land usage, water usage, long logistic paths, significant solid waste streams [tailings piles], and much more CO2 emissions.”

The dramatic expansion in battery production needed to meet these new targets has created “significant uncertainty” in the market, said Brian Storey, director of Toyota Research Institute’s Accelerated Materials Design and Discovery program. 

Storey believes that batteries using lower cobalt “may turn out to be very important for sustainability reasons” as they require less mining.

Alternatives to lithium-ion

There are a number of alternatives for battery materials, but lithium dominates the lion’s share of the market at around 90%. Lithium alternatives are not necessarily greener, although there is significant research focused on this next generation of batteries, Lutkenhaus noted.

“Several companies have committed to sourcing their battery materials ethically, but it seems difficult to execute in practice,” she added. “Our society needs to be prepared to create energy storage out of domestic, sustainable materials. In this manner, we could source, manufacture, and recycle batteries without strongly relying on a global supply chain.”

The European Union has focused on doing just that, subsidizing production to avoid becoming reliant on Asian suppliers. Currently China dominates the raw materials market, according to BloombergNEF data, holding 80% of the globe’s refining capacity.

While scientists are dabbling in sodium or even magnesium batteries, the research focus for transitioning to more sustainable lithium batteries has been on creating low- or no-cobalt cathodes to use in LIBs—primarily owing to the environmental and ethical issues surrounding cobalt: In some regions, mining of source materials relies on child labor. 

Ford and BMW announced in May they had invested in Colorado-based solid-state battery startup Solid Power. The automakers hope the batteries, which are not yet used in mass-market cars, will increase the range of future vehicles by offering greater energy density compared to LIBs. The technology uses sulfide-based cells, which the company says can produce 50% more energy density than LIBs—although the technology is still in the development phase.

Controlled Thermal Resources CEO Rod Colwell, right, and global director Tracy Sizemore walk near the shore of the Salton Sea, where the company is mining for lithium, in Niland, Calif., July 15, 2021.
Marcio Jose Sanchez—AP Images

Hydrogen cells

Car manufacturers such as Volkswagen are continuing to explore hydrogen fuel cell technology, while Audi is due to release a small-scale hydrogen-powered vehicle this year. In contrast to other EVs, these autos use cells powered by hydrogen, rather than drawing electricity from a battery, and fuel through an electrochemical process that combines hydrogen and oxygen. 

While EVs powered by hydrogen take less than four minutes to fuel and have the same range as fossil fuel–powered cars, hydrogen extraction is energy-intensive, cell storage is expensive, and the technology needs more investment to develop into a product that could be used for mass distribution. 

Until recently, zinc has not been a front-runner in EV battery materials owing to its poor rechargeability. Several academic projects have been launched to study using zinc in battery manufacturing, namely zinc-ion, both aqueous and nonaqueous. Zinc-ion cells function in a fashion similar to lithium. It has a number of advantages over lithium that make it a strong competitor. It’s more readily available, and it’s a safer material to work with, as it doesn’t need to be produced in a highly controlled atmosphere because it is water-based. It is also the fourth most mined material on the planet, making it relatively inexpensive. 

There are also new developments in labs where zinc electrodes are being redesigned. One development is 3D Sponge Zinc technology, which claims an equivalent performance to lithium-ion and is made completely from recyclable materials. The technology was developed by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and a company named EnZinc, however much of the zinc battery market is still in development, and it will be years before the material hits the mass consumer market.

Some scientists are going one step further and ditching traditional materials altogether. Lutkenhaus and her team have been focusing on exploring metal-free batteries, in which organic molecules are designed to act as active battery materials, and she recently coauthored a paper on polypeptide organic radical batteries. This type of battery is far more sustainable than traditional or lithium-ion batteries, as it does not rely on a metal—eradicating both unethical labor and environmental issues, as well as eliminating the reliance on a global supply chain.

Making these batteries is challenging, because the active materials have to be stable during their operation, but degradable at end of life. These polypeptides function as materials that could replace cobalt, lithium, or nickel in traditional EV batteries.

Sustainability questions 

EVs have been one of the primary weapons in the fight to phase out fossil fuels. But as production ramps up, the spotlight has shone on how these cars are powered—specifically, how they charge and the materials used to produce them.

Deep-sea mining is gaining increasing commercial interest as the industry grapples with a potential materials shortage. The International Seabed Authority has approved 28 mining contracts spanning 360,000 square miles, targeting sulfides, cobalt, and polymetallic nodules, which contain four essential battery metals—cobalt, nickel, copper, and manganese—in a single ore. 

But seabed mining brings concerns of its own: It is not yet known what the impacts will be on the ocean’s health, and conservationists and marine biologists have warned against diving into mining without a full understanding of the effects.

How the electricity that charges the cars is produced is important. Coal is still used to power up electric vehicles, and the electricity grid is still heavily reliant on fossil fuels. 

“The ultimate aim is to get to a grid that is not only completely renewable, but completely sustainable,” Srinivasan said. 

If the grid transitions to fully emission-free, however, then overall emissions drop. Electric motors may be more efficient than traditional ICE vehicles, but the batteries are emissions-intensive to make, and so producing batteries that charge quicker and retain energy for longer is vital.

Regardless of the method of extraction, however, lithium is a finite resource—and cobalt and nickel are even more stretched. The International Energy Agency warned earlier this year that at least 30 times as many materials were needed to meet 2040 clean vehicle targets, while production of these minerals needed to quadruple.

Another 2018 report warned there were 10 years left to redesign LIBs, as reserves of cobalt and nickel would not meet future demand. “Refocus research to find new electrodes based on common elements such as iron and silicon,” the scientists urged at the time.


Although lithium batteries have already been in the market for years, one of the emerging priorities is figuring out how to dispose of them in a sustainable way. 

Around 99% of lead batteries in the U.S. are recycled, yet a mere 5% of lithium batteries are given a second life. 

“It’s generally acknowledged that recycling of spent lithium-ion batteries is critical for the sustainable development of the LIB industry,” said Ferenc Kis, renewable energy business development director at RSK Europe, an environmental consultancy group. 

“Recovering metal values from spent LIBs can not only reduce pollutants, but also supplement the metal sources, thus mitigating resource constraints,” he said.

Spent LIBs contain numerous valuable metals, such as cobalt, copper, aluminum, nickel, and lithium, but most recycling technologies are in laboratories, not on the industrial scale.

Various treatments are applied to batteries, which convert the materials into three components, an alloy, a slag fraction, and clean air, released following a vigorous gas-cleaning process. 

“By recovering strategic elements like cobalt and lithium from end-of-life batteries, Umicore is leading the way towards a circular economy, providing solutions to the growing demand for sustainably sourced materials,” said a spokesman from Umicore, a materials technology company in Belgium, which is one of the few facilities recycling batteries. Umicore’s facility has a capacity to recycle 7,000 metric tons per year, equivalent to 35,000 EV batteries.

In the U.S., major automakers are beginning to address the sustainability issues surrounding their supply chains, including battery production and recycling, as they ramp up electric vehicle manufacturing. Most recently, Ford Motor, together with Korean battery manufacturer SK Innovation, said it plans to spend $11.4 billion to set up several new plants to produce parts for electric vehicles as a part of a closed loop manufacturing initiative. Earlier this month, Ford announced a partnership with battery recycling startup Redwood Materials.

“Our work with Redwood will, by design, help ensure the infrastructure is in place to cost-effectively recycle end-of-life Ford batteries to create a robust domestic materials stream and drive down the cost of electric vehicles,” said Lisa Drake, Ford’s North America chief operating officer. 

The race is on for automakers to rebuild their supply chains in order to meet the wave of demand as government policy deadlines to switch to EVs draw near. 

While some sustainable solutions can be adopted quickly, others require more research and testing. Finding successful alternatives to lithium, nickel, and cobalt may take decades, considering going from lab to market with these kinds of alternative technologies usually takes around 15 to 25 years. 

“The world simply doesn’t have that kind of time,” Srinivasan adds.

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