Are Electric Vehicles Sustainable? The problem with lithium-ion batteries

Electric Vehicles

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As the world has continued on its trajectory to cleaner forms of energy, electric vehicles have become a major player in the automotive industry. It seems that automakers continue to add more and more into their arsenal. From Rivian to Toyota, every manufactur specializes in electric vehicles or is trying to normalize them. While electric vehicles may seem like the future — and very well could be — we aren’t in a position for that yet for several reasons, including the lack of sustainability with lithium-ion batteries.

The state of the electricity infrastructure

With the present state of the U.S. electricity infrastructure, it would not be able to handle a world with only electric vehicles.

As long as the power grid continues to develop and see innovation concurrently with the slowly decreasing base EV prices, then normalizing electric vehicles will become much more manageable. Even of this gets fixed, there is still one remaining issues: The batteries in them.

Lithium-ion batteries and lithium mines

A more pressing issue than the electricity infrastructure is the mining of lithium for EV batteries. Even though there have been innovations in battery technology, it doesn’t change the fact that lithium mining is detrimental to the environment. The lithium mining process can deplete fertile lands, cause respiratory issues, along with producing high amounts of mining waste. This year-long process requires over 500,000 gallons of water to mine a metric ton of lithium.

Making the situation worse, most of the world does not recycle lithium-ion batteries.

According to the Institute for Energy Research, “In Australia, only two percent of the country’s 3,300 metric tons of lithium-ion waste is recycled. Unwanted MP3 players and laptops often end up in landfills, where metals from the electrodes and ionic fluids from the electrolyte can leak into the environment.”

The science to effectively recycle lithium-ion batteries is still being developed. It must catch up before EV owners start to retire their vehicle to a landfill.

Are electric vehicles sustainable?

Once we are able to recycle EV lithium-ion batteries and find a more efficient way of mining lithium, electric vehicles may be more sustainable. For now, hybrids or plug-in hybrids are a safer bet — for your wallet and the environment.