There isn’t much of an argument that converting the majority of the transportation fleet to electric vehicles (EVs) will dramatically reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Even if an EV is charged using electricity produced by the dirtiest coal-fired electric power plant, its overall lifetime CO2 emissions will be significantly lower than an equivalent gasoline-powered vehicle. If the electric gets its electrons from renewable sources (solar or wind, for example), the CO2 reduction picture for EVs is even better. Mercedes-Benz calculates that an EV beats its gasoline-powered counterpart by 40% in CO2 emissions over 120,000 miles—70% if the electricity used to recharge the EV comes from renewables.
Unfortunately, CO2 emissions from driving the car are not the only source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, for either EVs or vehicles with gasoline or diesel engines. Every step of the entire process, from extracting raw materials for manufacturing to manufacturing, to usage, and through to final disposal each has a cost in terms of its CO2 emissions. Traditionally, we have tended to make, use, and then dispose of our products—what is called a linear economy. As we move toward electrification to help reduce CO2 emissions, there is a new understanding that we must consider every step of the process and work to not only build in sustainability but also to reduce or eliminate EV CO2 emissions.
The approach is called a circular economy, and lithium-ion battery manufacturing for EV applications is a particularly appropriate application. A circular economy reduces waste and preserves resources by designing materials, products, and processes with reuse, recycling, and upcycling from the beginning, instead of adding these considerations as an afterthought.
Let’s walk through the steps in the mining, manufacturing, use, and recycling of the lithium-ion battery pack that is used in an EV and see where improvements can be made to reduce the overall CO2 emissions produced by an EV.
Kevin Clemens is a Senior Editor with Battery Technology.