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Battery innovation to improve the electric vehicle industry image

Updated: Jun 18, 2021

The current irony of electric vehicles saving the planet by producing zero emissions is the

stuff that's going into their batteries is punishing the planet further. There is the fact of Newton's third law, which I feel applies to most things we do in life, not just in a physics classroom: that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. In this case, saving the planet from emissions is also causing more children to start working in the Congo to mine the cobalt demanded by the tech industry, nickel producers pouring toxic waste into the ocean and lithium mining taking water away from necessary food crops in South America. Equally as good as reducing pollution and improving air quality is, there needs to be the accountability of the whole supply chain to reduce this.

The proposed EU Battery Regulations by the European commission promises to do just that. As defined in the framework the European Union has released: It would introduce mandatory requirements on sustainability (such as carbon footprint rules, minimum recycled content, performance and durability criteria), safety and labelling for the marketing and putting into service of batteries, and requirements for end-of-life management. The proposal also includes due diligence obligations for economic operators as regards the sourcing of raw materials. With a market as big as the EU presenting these regulations, it will be a big push for many manufacturers to rethink their practices and make changes quickly if they don't want to lose sales.

Cobalt in its raw form

Cobalt remains to be the biggest issue due to the manner of how it is mined. With children as young as seven working in the mines to help their families bring in enough income to survive. Being paid only dollars for long days in dangerous conditions is not enough. The cobalt itself also presents a health risk to those that mine it. With many that come in contact with it experiencing skin irritation, astma, cancer, fibrosis, as well as effects to heart, thyroid, liver and kidneys. Many of these effects can also be fatal. Although cobalt is necessary to a degree in our bodys through the form of vitamin B12, the excessive and extended exposure to the metal is toxic.

Nickel is also an issue due to how it is mined. Ores usually contain very little usable nickel so most of what is mined is waste. This is damaging to the landscape and often forest areas are cleared in order to create more mines; as well as environmental contamination occurring. The most common issues of environmental contamination are emissions of acid rain-causing sulfur dioxide to enter the atmosphere, acid mine drainage, and heavy metals contamination in soil and water. Considering the little nickel that is gained from this mining it causes a large environmental impact; of which is then associated with the EV industry due to its use in batteries.

Tesla Model 3 Electric Vehicle
Tesla Model 3

With the rise of concern over cobalt and nickel use within the batteries of electric vehicles, Tesla has been one of the first to announce the decision to remove these from their Model 3 batteries. The lithium iron phosphate (LPL) alternatives are not yet as advanced as their cobalt/nickel counterparts thus they currently have a reduced range and charging ability. Hence why Tesla has only added it to their standard range Model 3’s as they are not yet able to stack up for their high performance options. LPL batteries are also a lot cheaper due to cobalt being a very expensive component. This has seen the Tesla Model 3 drop below $70K in New Zealand for the first time. Now priced from $69,990, previously $73,900. This should see EV uptake continue to rise rapidly as the cost to swap from ICE vehicles drops. The success of LPL batteries for Tesla also sees other manufacturers, such as VW, moving away from cobalt and nickel too.

Tesla Electric Vehicles China Factory
Tesla China Factory

The more manufacturers that get on board with LPL batteries or similar cobalt free alternatives, the better it is for the electric vehicle industry. The negative connotations that hang over the industry due to the mining of these metals has been rather contradictory for the environmentally conscious consumers that are wanting to buy an EV. Although many still have issues with lithium, it is an improvement that will hopefully continue to be innovated over time. Unlike the fossil fuel industry, issues like child labour, metal mining practices and other issues identified by the world are brought into the spotlight rapidly, which is a good thing. But in the immediate denigration of this new technology, mostly for personal reasons, people are quick to forget that, in addition to job site accidents, coal mining for example, can lead to chronic health disorders. Black lung disease (pneumoconiosis) continues to be a common ailment among coal miners. The disease was responsible for the deaths of approximately 10,000 former miners between 1990 and 2000, and continues today. There are many many more issues outlined by the Union of Concerned Scientists which is worth a read. Ultimately we must remember that we are moving to renewable energy and electric transport due to the centuries of damage we have done to the planet with our current ways. Sea levels continue to rise, pollution, and waste. Climate change is very much happening and despite human nature's resistance for change, it is drastically needed to make a difference.

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