EPA Report on Life-Cycle Analysis of Lithium-Ion Batteries Paints Bleak Picture

4 years ago by Eric Loveday 14

Behold Some Beautiful Mounds of Lithium

Behold Some Beautiful Mounds of Lithium

The Environmental Protection Agency says that lithium-ion batteries are rather harmful in several ways.

Cartoon-ish Image of Lithium-ion Battery Pack

Cartoon-ish Image of Lithium-ion Battery Pack

The EPA report, titled “Application of Life-Cycle Assessment to Nanoscale Technology: Lithium-ion Batteries for Electric Vehicles,” (PDF link) suggests that a full life-cycle analysis of lithium-ion batteries shows “resource depletion, global warming, ecological toxicity and human health impacts.

Takes a Lot to Make Those

Could it be Harmful to Make These?

The report further says that the nickel and cobalt cathodes within lithium-ion batteries “may cause adverse respiratory, pulmonary and neurological effects in those exposed.

Of course, similar statements can be made in regards to millions of products out there, as it seems everything is harmful in some way these days.

At least the EPA says the potentially harmful cathode issue could be solved with nano technology, though that will require a great deal of development work since nano technology is not yet at the commercially viable level for automotive lithium-ion batteries.

The focus here though is on life-cycle analysis, which means that the EPA calculated the energy required to manufacture the electric vehicle and all of its necessary components.  The EPA then adds in the amount and sources of energy used in operation and the energy required to recycle the vehicle and all of its components at the end of its useful life.

So, it’s not just the production aspect of lithium-ion batteries that is being examined here.  We suspect that most of the EPA’s findings stem from the lithium-ion recycling side, which if not carried out correctly, can indeed be harmful.  But are lithium-ion batteries really all that harmful?  We doubt it, but we’re glad to see the EPA being proactive here by conducting this study and publishing results well before millions of lithium-ion vehicles are out on the roads.

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14 responses to "EPA Report on Life-Cycle Analysis of Lithium-Ion Batteries Paints Bleak Picture"

  1. zilm says:

    There is a great graph on page 80, better to take it out to article

  2. Rick Danger says:

    Who wrote this report again? The EPA? or Chevron? Elmer FUD?

    FFS, how much energy does it take to machine all the parts of an ICE and transmission and then put them all together?

    And how can lithium-ion batteries be worse than all the gallons of antifreeze, transmission fluid, used motor oil, etc than an ICE goes through in it’s lifetime? Not to mention the thousands of gallons of toxic gasoline it uses?

    1. Dave R says:

      It’s actually a good and useful report but Mr. Loveday is trying to stir things up as usual.

    2. Brian says:

      Agreed. 96% of all of the emissions are based on a coal/fossil/nuke grid.

      It’s ridiculous to blame or measure an energy systems emissions based on old dirty fossils and nuke electric.

      It’s tells us nothing and confuses the issue.

      Assuming solar, wind, 100% recycling and waste fuels provide the electricity

      What additional pollution do these batteries cause?

      Not much.

  3. Anon says:

    The EPA also sanctions Fracking, and proactively protects big business interests by blocking any environmental or health-based lawsuits against said companies… 😛

    1. GasPath says:

      Conspiracy theories. By the way, where does the electricity come from that you use? Do you drive a car or ride a bike? Have you forsaken home heating and cooling in order to save our planet? I have. Off grid, and soon to have an EV if they ever sell them in my State.

  4. dmluxe says:

    There was an interesting sentence in the summary on p. 17: “It is important to note, however, that this study and data contained in a previous study suggest that, in comparison to internal combustion engine vehicles, there are significant benefits in GWP for both EVs and PHEV-40s, regardless of the carbon intensity of the grid.” (GWP stands for Global Warming Potential)

  5. Just WOW… can’t believe I’m reading this on “Inside EVs”??

    The lead photo is of “salt brine” being dehydration and not “Litium Mounds”. Note Litium exposed to water will quickly turns to Litium-Oxide releasing hydrogen. Mounts of Litium of size pictured in water would make an awesome July 4th Fireworks Display (hydrogen explosions ignited by pure litium burning oxygen from the air above the water).

    Unless an electric vehicle owner goes through a great deal of work to dissassembe the vehicles battery pack, modules, and then cells … they will not be exposed to the elements contained in the anode and cathode of individual cells. Access to dissasseblling individual Litium cells is much easier accomplished but buying a few double-AA’s from you local drug store.

    In reality, manufacturing of electric vehicle batteries is accomplished in clean room with limited human exposure and limited exposure to the environment. A gallery of photos showing production of EV batteries… note use of robotics and ack of smoke stacks: http://www.greencarreports.com/pictures/1084162_how-are-electric-car-batteries-made-photos-from-nissans-new-plant_gallery-1 After tens or so years of use, vehicle battery cells can be recycled in a similar clean (not exposed to outside environment) facility.

    Would be interesting to see EPA’s report on the Life-Cycle of Petroleum with details on amounts of, and chemicals exposed (and dumped into atmosphere) just during the refining process. What cemicals are pumped into ground for fracting oil? Or, what chemicals are released into the environment fr internal combustion engines drip oil over their LifeCycle (metals other compounds) as the travel? Rain water washes these chemicals off roads and parking lots where they can enter the food chain.

    It would appear from ths report that EPA does NOT hold all industries to the same degree of standards. Why?

    1. Mark H says:

      Great response Brian
      I am still reading the report but this comment struck me the hardest.
      “There is uncertainty with respect to the actual lifetime of batteries in automobiles. Our analysis assumes a life-time of 10 years, which we halved for the sensitivity
      According to the American Chemical Society they should have doubled opposed to halved
      What would that do to the numbers?

  6. Dan Frederiksen says:

    so if you powder and sniff the batteries it might be harmful?

  7. Ryan says:

    EV detractors always bring up the issue of a coal power plant. Considering the stationary nature of the plant; all means of capture, scrubbing, or filtering could be installed.

  8. Ian says:

    Construction and decommissioning toxicity footprint must be considered for sure, but the associated hot-air factor also must be borne in mind too. Remember when the locomotive was invented they required a man with a red flag to run in front because of the ‘danger associated with speed’. Without risk we prevent progress, without progress we increase other risks. Get on with it and over it!

  9. James says:

    The argument I bring up when people talk about coal is it point at the incongruity of not then mentioning the energy to pump the oil out of the ground, pump it to a super tanker, drive that super tank half way around the world, pump the oil to a refinery (usually they concede at this point but I continue), refine the oil to gas, load the gas onto a truck, drive that truck to a local gas station, and then pump it into your car (that you drove there). I then explain the vastly superior efficiency of generating electricity (yes, with some pollution), transmitting it to my house, and then charging my car (which was there already). I’m not saying it is not bad, just greater return for effort at getting wheel spin (the goal of all this after all).

  10. Assaf says:

    Questions to Eric:

    1. The report is date-stamped April 24 and the PDF file itself is date-stamped April 29. Was it only posted online now? If not, why the story now – didn’t the site report on it back in April on May?

    2. I find the report’s summary to be worded in a very confusing manner. What *most* people would like to learn from such a report is
    a. Whether there’s any special high risk related to Li-ion EV batteries, whether environmental or otherwise
    b. What the overall life-cycle global-warming impact. A point which anti-EV hacks have been trying to score (with zero information, just like they’ve been wrongly harping on solar PEV cell’s lifetime impact, etc.).

    As far as I understand the answer to a. is that while not perfect, there is nothing out of the ordinary in the toxicity/etc. impact of Li-ion technology.
    And the answer to b. is buried in Figure 3-1 (p. 74), where one can clearly see all EVs and PHEVs beating the average ICE car, on a life-cycle battery analysis, even assuming >99% coal electricity. With grid like the West Coast’s or the Northeast’s, based largely on hydro, it is a landslide victory.

    Do you understand the same?