Lithium-ion batteries are so integral to modern life, there’s a good chance you have one within arm’s reach right now. And they’re becoming even more important as people seek to reduce climate threats by electrifying their energy system. The only problem is that both production and disposal harm those who mine the raw materials as well as the environment. This opinion piece offers valuable advice for maximizing benefit while reducing harm by enhancing the reuse and recycling of lithium-ion batteries, and reducing the hazards associated with extracting the raw materials that go into them.
- Lithium-ion batteries are the linchpin of the energy transition.
- They have troubling environmental impacts.
- They have repercussions for human health and well-being.
- Researchers, corporations and policy makers need to fix this.
Lithium-ion batteries are the linchpin of the energy transition.
Lithium-ion rechargeable batteries are a staple of modern life. They power phones and laptops, are integral to electric vehicles, and will be increasingly important for electricity storage as people integrate intermittent sources such as solar and wind power into electric grids. The global market for lithium-ion batteries is expected to more than triple to US$100 billion between 2017 and 2025.
They have troubling environmental impacts.
Mining of lithium and cobalt, two key components of lithium-ion batteries, takes lots of water and energy. And that’s a problem. One-third of lithium supplies come from arid parts of Argentina and Chile where miners use scarce water to extract it. In China and Australia, miners use large amounts of energy to separate the lithium from the source material.
“Policy makers, industry leaders and researchers need to mitigate these problems, and quickly, to reduce the unintended consequences of an important technology.”
Efforts to reduce the need to mine material by recycling batteries are stymied by the fact that batteries are often built into devices or get thrown away as the device is repurposed.
They have repercussions for human health and well-being.
More than three-quarters of known cobalt reserves are in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The growing demand has incentivized many individuals in the low-income country to take up artisanal mining. Unsafe mining conditions, complete with child labor, are common.
Researchers, corporations and policy makers need to fix this.
As global demand for lithium-ion batteries grows, people must mitigate these adverse impacts. Experts have proposed and are beginning to deploy better practices.
Some of these emerging practices focus on reducing the harms related to extraction. These include developing a replacement for cobalt, finding new sources and ways of mining lithium, and improving worker conditions.
Others emphasize getting the most out of batteries once they are made and minimizing disposal’s adverse impacts. Among them are developing reuse infrastructure; designing for reuse, recycling and repurposing; establishing requirements for recycling; and including recycled content in new batteries.
“A shift in thinking is needed: Scientists should consider how materials can be recycled, reused and repurposed as they design them.”
It’s important to avoid incentivizing counterproductive activities in the process, such as retiring devices before their useful life is over or increasing long-distance shipping of materials for recycling. But if people can overcome the downsides of lithium-ion batteries, this fast-growing technology offers much hope for a brighter future for Earth – and humanity.
About the Author
The editorial staff of Nature produced this editorial as part of a 2021 series on materials and the circular economy.