Are there enough materials to make all the electric vehicles needed?

The short answer is yes. But this is a complicated question, so let’s go deeper.

The transition to electric vehicles (EVs) is necessary to reduce climate-altering emissions. As deployment increases, the demand for electric vehicle battery materials such as lithium, cobalt and nickel will also increase. These materials are mainly provided by two sources: 1) newly mined or 2) recovered by recycling batteries already in circulation.

Using recycled materials results in significantly lower environmental impacts and substitutes for those that have just been mined, even if it requires that the materials have already been mined, turned into a battery, and then retired from use.

Research shows there are enough explored or potential reserves to electrify the global transport sector using current technology if a large amount of battery recycling occurs. In this scenario, global demand in 2100 will represent approximately 55% of cobalt reserves and 50% of lithium reserves.

This stands in stark contrast to a future without high recycling rates.

If recycling does not increase, a shortage of lithium, nickel or cobalt is not likely, but it is estimated that demand would exceed what is economically accessible for extraction. In this scenario, demand in 2060 exceeds cobalt reserves and about 90% of lithium reserves. In other words, for projected demand to be met, extraction must go beyond what is considered economically viable. This decrease in reserves would likely increase material costs, trigger increased exploration and development, and potentially increase reserves.

Scientists who assess resource availability through mining typically look at two categories: total available resources and reserves. This distinction is important because reserves represent aggregate resources that are economic to be extracted, while total resources represent an estimate of the finite world resources. Reserve estimates are therefore well below total resources and fluctuate with material value, mineral exploration and technology development.

Recycling has many benefits

Recycling can significantly reduce new mining requirements and is an essential strategy for sustainable, safe and affordable electrification.

How is recycling more sustainable? The environmental impacts of using recycled content are much lower than those of newly mined materials. Since the materials recovered through recycling were already in the economy, the only impacts associated with their production are from transport from the battery to recycling, pre-treatment and recycling. By using recycled materials instead of newly mined materials, the reduction in climate-altering greenhouse gas emissions is approximately 64%. Emissions that create smog and impact human health can also be mitigated; sulfur oxides can be reduced by 89% and nitrogen oxides by 78%.

“Net Emissions” represents the net emissions reduced by using recycled materials instead of newly mined materials to make 1 kg of lithium-ion battery. “Recycling emissions” represent emissions from recycling using hydrometallurgical processing and “avoided emissions” represent the total emissions that have been reduced by not manufacturing one kg of battery from newly mined materials. Information for this figure was taken from Dunn et al. (2022).

Why is recycling an essential strategy for achieving safe and affordable electrification? In addition to comparing available supply and demand, many other factors can lead to material shortages, such as inadequate processing capacity and geopolitical supply chain issues. Recycling can ensure a local supply of materials and reduce the demand for new materials, all of which can reduce costs.

What demand can be met with recycled materials?

Estimates show that in the United States, much of the future demand for electric vehicle materials can be met with recycled content. In 2050, recovered materials can supply about 45-52% cobalt, 40-46% nickel and 22-27% of the lithium demand for electric vehicles. In the short term, recycled content will represent a smaller amount of battery material – this increases as more material is in the economy and EV batteries retire.

The percentage of demand for electric vehicle battery materials in the United States that is estimated to be met by recycled materials. It can also be called recycled content. Information for this figure was taken from Dunn et al. (2022).

Since mined materials will be needed to supplement the recycled content, we must ensure ethical and sustainable sourcing. Furthermore, it is essential that material demand is reduced by increasing the material efficiency of batteries and electric vehicles and moving away from reliance on the car and in favor of more public transport.

Is recycling profitable?

Although the exact economics of operating recycling facilities are unknown, recycling facility expansion plans, as well as recycling cost estimates using National Lab models, indicate that recycling lithium batteries -ion ​​is (or soon will be) profitable. Since recycling is not a requirement in the United States, actual recycling occurs due to economics or funded research and development.

Recycling revenues are strongly influenced by the materials contained in the battery and their market value. In a lithium-ion battery, there is an anode, the negative electrode, and a cathode, the positive electrode. The battery charges and discharges by cycling lithium ions between the anode and the cathode.

The materials used in the lithium-ion battery cathode vary. Until recently, most popular electric vehicles contained a cobalt-nickel battery, as this allowed them to have a long range in a compact format. Tesla and Ford are now transitioning to a cobalt-free chemistry for their low-end electric vehicles, called lithium-iron phosphate (LFP). Nickel and cobalt are expensive materials and have some of the highest associated environmental and social impacts. Reducing the use of these materials is beneficial overall, but it also reduces the battery’s value to recyclers.

As cobalt and nickel are reduced in batteries (or completely eliminated), recycling can still be done, but it may not be cost effective with current recycling technology. As recycling is not a requirement and the recycling that does occur is primarily based on the positive economy, it is essential that a policy is in place to ensure that all batteries are recycled, even if not there are no high economic returns.

What does this mean for the long-term supply of materials for lithium-ion batteries?

There are enough materials to make electric vehicles, but recycling is necessary to make them more sustainable, ethical and affordable.

The switch from gasoline to electricity presents a huge opportunity for efficient use of resources. Unlike our current system, where we continually extract oil and burn it in our cars and trucks, contributing to air pollution and climate change, the minerals we use to build electric vehicles can be captured and reused to support the next generation of clean vehicles.

Currently, the United States does not require the recycling of lithium-ion batteries, but we know that recycling is happening, thanks to reports from recyclers and contracts between automakers and recyclers. Although this is a good indicator, a policy that requires and supports the recycling of electric vehicle batteries is still necessary to ensure that as many batteries are recycled as possible, even if it is not profitable.

To date, EV battery recycling policy in the United States consists of investments in recycling research, development, and demonstration, such as in the bipartisan Infrastructure Act. California, on the other hand, is more actively exploring recycling requirements. A stakeholder group recently submitted policy recommendations to the legislature, including a requirement that automakers be responsible for recycling electric vehicle batteries when they retire. An overview of their process and findings can be found in one of my recent blogs. We will follow the next legislative session closely in the hope that a good policy will be developed.

By Jessica Dunn. Originally published by the Union of Concerned Scientists, The Equation.

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