EVs are seen as key in transition to low-carbon economy, but as their human and environmental costs become clearer, can new tech help?

hile the journey to a low-carbon economy is well under way, the best route to get there remains up for debate. But, amid the slew of “pathways” and “roadmaps”, one broad consensus exists: “clean” technology will play a vital role.

Nowhere is this truer than for transport. To cut vehicle emissions, an alternative to the combustion engine is required.

While green hydrogen is developing at pace, much of the early progress is in the electric vehicle (EV) space. Despite an overall flatlining in new car purchases, recent monthly figures show a 50% leap in year-on-year sales for EVs.

Yet, “clean” is a relative term. EVs do not have exhausts pumping out emissions, but the raw materials that go into them have just as much embedded carbon, if not more, as their combustion equivalents. As a recent Guardian investigation shows, the human rights and environmental costs of the green transport revolution are still not being fully considered in the race towards electric vehicles.

The batteries that EVs use are a big part of this problem and can push the weight of the car up to nearly 3,000kg. They contain rare metals – many sourced from the poorest and most ecologically sensitive places on the planet.

Yet, eco-innovations are afoot. Here, we look at five early stage efforts to improve the green credentials of EV batteries at different stages of their life.

Mining: saving the aquifer

Acquiring the raw metals for batteries has been linked to environmental and human rights impacts, such as child labour (cobalt) and river pollution (copper).

Eramet facility Salta
An Eramet facility in Salta, Argentina where the French metals company is working on a process that filters water used in lithium extraction so it can be returned to its source. Photograph: Handout

Lithium, a rare metal on which EV batteries heavily depend, is extracted from land deposits or subterranean aquifers. In the case of the latter, vast quantities of salty groundwater are pumped to the surface and then evaporated in huge lake-sized pools. French metals company Eramet is experimenting with an alternative based on “nanofiltration”, which filters the water through natural mineral granules and returns it to the aquifer. The company has invested €200m (£145m) in the project, including the construction of a working prototype in Salta, Argentina. With 90% yield rates, almost double the industry average, less virgin lithium ends up “in the dustbin”, says Philippe Gundermann, executive vice-president for strategy and innovation at Eramet. The company have also recently announced the start of construction on a new lithium plant in Argentina which they claim will meet 15% of European lithium needs.

Design: going modular

Electronics have an obsolescence problem that EVs share. The shift to electric is projected to create 12m tonnes of battery waste between now and by 2030. Step forward Aceleron. The UK startup hope to do for battery packs what the Dutch firm Fairphone has done for smartphones; namely, go modular. The key components in an electric battery – the cathode, anode, separator, cooling system, fuses, assembly hardware, and so on – all have different lifespans. Most batteries are glued or welded together, making it a headache to access a broken component. Aceleron’s alternative, uses compression to reduce the need to bond components, making it easier to disassemble a battery pack for repairs, servicing, or repurposing. “If you can make a battery serviceable, it’s possible to extend its life by 10 years,” says co-founder Carlton Cummins. The Midlands-based company has deals to use its battery system in trucks and all-terrain vehicles.

Aceleron battery components
The Aceleron battery has been designed to be easy to disassemble so its components can be sent for repairs, servicing, or repurposing. Photograph: 44799/Handout

Reuse: energy storage

At some stage, battery performance wanes. Storage capacity may no longer allow for a 250km round-trip, but that doesn’t render them useless. Connected Energy, a Newcastle-based firm, takes old EV batteries and combines them into stationary power storage units. “We use the batteries almost exactly as they are coming out of the vehicle,” says the firm’s chief executive Matthew Lumsden. Each battery in the unit is connected to a computer system that monitors temperature levels and energy availability, as well as managing charging and discharging rates. Connected Energy has a dozen second-life power units operating on industrial sites in the UK and Europe, with plans to double this in the coming months. Lumsden expects his solution to ramp up from 2025 when first-time EV drivers begin to update their cars and more batteries become available. Unpublished research by Lancaster University indicates that for every megawatt-hour provided by Connected Energy’s storage system, the equivalent of about 1,100 tonnes of carbon dioxide is saved.

Connected Energy’s chief executive Matthew Lumsden.
Connected Energy’s chief executive Matthew Lumsden. The firm repurposes old EV batteries into stationary power storage units. Photograph: Handout

Recycling: low-energy smelting

When performance levels get to the point where re-use opportunities begin to peter out then recycling becomes the most viable option. Most EVs run on lithium-ion batteries. Not only are these highly “volatile”, as in they’re liable to catch fire, but, despite the name, they contain comparatively little lithium. Belgium-based Umicore, a one-time smelting firm turned “urban miner”, has developed a cutting-edge recycling system that melts down the core components into a metal alloy (including copper, nickel, and cobalt) and a concentrate (containing lithium and other rare elements). The battery’s own energy, plus the organic parts of its materials, mean that “relatively little energy” is added to reach the temperatures required for smelting, says company spokesperson, Marjolein Scheers. Heat also comes from burning harmful gases produced in the process.

Umicore’s recycling site in Antwerp
Umicore’s recycling site in Antwerp. The plant’s cutting-edge system is able to recover core components and rare metals from EV batteries. Photograph: Handout

Transparency: battery passport

What if electric car buyers entering a showroom could find out not only how far a single charge could take them or the time it takes to go from 0 km/h to 60 km/h, but also the details of the car battery’s journey before reaching the forecourt? That’s the goal of an ambitious project by the Global Battery Alliance (GBA). The private-public initiative, coordinated by the World Economic Forum, plans to launch the battery “passport” at the end of next year.

The digital tool promises to track the management of social and environmental risks in an EV battery’s life, from possible human rights abuses in mineral extraction to energy use in its production. Anna Pienaar, executive director at GBA, says the voluntary passport will allow regulators to “track the environmental and human rights impact of EV batteries and customers can make more informed choices”. The project’s steering committee includes carmakers Audi and Renault, as well as the mining firm Glencore.