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The race is on to make EV batteries truly sustainable

June 23, 2022, 10:52 AM UTC
Ford Motor Co. President and CEO James Farley speaks during a Ford announcement Sept. 28 of its new Battery Park in central Kentucky.
Jon Cherry—Bloomberg/Getty Images

The electric vehicle battery supply chain that has been built over the last 20 years will not be the same one that carries us through the next 20 years. With demand for EVs growing rapidly, fundamental changes are needed to address the ethical and sustainable challenges in creating EV batteries.

As a growing number of Americans trade in their gas guzzlers for environmentally friendly EVs, auto manufacturers and those who create EV batteries should prepare to go under the American consumer’s microscope on issues like semiconductor supply chains, carbon footprints in manufacturing, and circularity.

Sky-high gas prices are forcing more Americans to consider making the switch to an electric vehicle. And as EV demand goes up, automakers are under pressure to produce these vehicles as quickly and economically as possible. The higher costs of EVs have come down considerably with technology improvements, tax credits, and new battery technology. At some point, EVs should become less expensive than gas-powered vehicles.

However, in the short term, the cost of building EVs is going up as the demand for key materials increases and the supply remains challenged. Faced with this, it would be easy for automakers and suppliers to cut corners for short-term gains at the expense of sustainable material sourcing. That’s a mistake we can ill afford. Consumers are increasingly seeking out the most innovative, sustainable products across industries–and EVs won’t be the exception.

Until now, consumers have been more concerned with cost, battery range, and charging speed–and solving these important challenges has been the focus of the auto industry. But as EVs become more widespread, we need new ways to safely dispose of them in an environmentally friendly manner. Most importantly, we need new ways to recycle them. Automakers, material manufacturers, and customers all have a part to play in smartly managing resources and innovation so America can lead the way on homegrown, sustainable growth for a green transportation sector.

Fortunately, research is already underway to find solutions. At Cornell University, scientists are partnering with the National Science Foundation to convert old EV batteries into storage units for renewable energy, reducing the carbon footprint of these units while helping solve a growing energy storage crisis on the nation’s electric grids. Tesla already partners with Redwood Materials to recycle waste and scrap battery material. And new EV battery technologies that reduce barriers to recyclability and the need for some rare metals are also being developed.

Since EV batteries are heavy and can increase energy needs, many auto manufacturers are also partnering with materials solutions providers to lower the weight of these units in the body of the car by using advanced thermoplastic composites. Some vehicles like Ford’s new F-150 Lightning are taking this a step further and integrating the battery into the body of the car, further reducing its weight.

At Solvay, where I lead our battery and hydrogen growth platforms, we’re supporting research from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation on circularity to better understand how making our supply chains more sustainable can promote decarbonization.

The successful transition to a sustainable EV ecosystem will take several solutions working in parallel. Governments, automakers, and materials providers are all going to have to work together to ensure the EV revolution is as green as promised.

Mike Finelli is the president of group growth initiatives and chief North America officer at Solvay.

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