- New EV regulations target increased sustainability as part of Green Deal
- However, challenges exist around sourcing of raw materials and disposal of spent batteries
- Swedish firm Northvolt offers a glimpse of the possible future of battery recycling
The EU will impose stricter environmental regulations for electric batteries, as part of ambitious plans for a “Green Deal” economic overhaul. The new regulations will ensure that all batteries marketed in the EU are greener throughout their lifecycle.
EU environment commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius predicts “the EU will become the second-biggest global market for batteries.” With the EU market expanding rapidly, full life-cycle sustainability of the batteries themselves becomes paramount and “should not lag behind.”
The move will enable Europe’s domestic supply to compete with Asia, from where all of Europe’s EV batteries are currently sourced. With billions already invested into its Battery Alliance project, Europe’s battery market value is predicted to reach 250bn euros by 2025.
Requirements including responsible raw material sourcing, clean production energy, and improved durability and energy efficiency will affect batteries imported into the bloc as well as those produced inside it.
The phasing out of petrol and diesel cars – slated by various member states for implementation between 2030-2040 – forms a key pillar of the EU’s attempts to meet its emissions goals by 2050, which require a reduction in transport emissions of 90%.
Ethics and emissions
Critics of electric vehicles typically focus on the battery manufacturing process as a source of environmental drawbacks. Two raw materials in particular – cobalt and nickel – pose serious ethical and environmental challenges.
60% of the world’s cobalt is produced by the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). A 2016 report by Amnesty International uncovered serious human rights abuses, including an estimated 40,000 child workers, in so-called “artisanal mines”, an essentially unregulated arm of the Congolese mining industry.
Nickel production, especially from laterite deposits, is energy- and water-intensive and carries significant biodiversity threats since, according to a report by risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft, 40% of nickel reserves are in high biodiversity locations and protected areas. These combined issues came to a head in the summer, when Russian nickel producer Norilsk Nickel spilled around 21,000 tonnes of diesel into the Ambarnaya river, an area of pristine Arctic wilderness.
Lithium-ion batteries also rely heavily on – you guessed it – lithium to function. While mining operations may soon start in Portugal, Europe currently relies entirely on imports for its lithium supply, adding the carbon cost of transport to the environmental costs of extracting the “white oil” in the first place.
Recycle the dead
EV batteries have a shorter working life than petrol- and diesel-powered vehicle batteries. With electric and hybrid cars forecast to account for 90% of the lithium-ion battery market by 2050, piles of dead batteries are set to grow over the coming decades. This potential environmental disaster holds the key to solving the issues involved in extraction.
Swedish company Northvolt is pioneering the recycling of EV batteries. 30% of a battery’s greenhouse gas emissions are estimated to stem from the mining and refinement of raw materials. Northvolt aims to retrieve these from used batteries and reuse them in new batteries.
It’s a far from straightforward process. Even transporting a spent battery to Northvolt’s recycling facility involves safety regulations given the amount of flammable and noxious chemicals involved. Once on-site, a concoction of volatile elements gives EV batteries explosive tendencies if handled incorrectly. While the process is currently carried out laboriously by hand, Northvolt hopes to scale and speed up the process with automation in future.
Northvolt’s ethical and environmental credentials run deep. Its operations are powered entirely by hydroelectricity, and it currently avoids sourcing any cobalt from the DRC, pioneering the future of a large, sustainable electric vehicle market in Europe.