It's been true for a while that advancing battery technology is a critical part of the development of cleaner cars. As Tony Posawetz, vehicle line director for the Chevy Volt said at the recent Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Awards, "We will electrify the future. Batteries have gotten better but consumers have gotten more demanding."
While some experts have projected that the batteries of the near future may be literally assembled from dirt, it's true that today's devices have some amount of toxicity to them, and some environmental concerns. Still, widely circulated concerns over the impact of batteries are overblown.
The Daily Green recently received an email from Kathryn Mayer, a reader who said she is considering buying a 2011 hybrid Hyundai Sonata. However, she had second thoughts after a friend asked her: what would happen to the battery at the end of its life? The friend's argument was that, because hybrids (and electric cars) have bigger batteries than conventional gas cars, shouldn't that mean the batteries are more toxic? Shouldn't that mean the environmental benefits of driving a hybrid are canceled out?
Well, there are a number of things Kathryn's friend should know:
In the case of the Chevy Volt, that's eight years, and in the case of the 2011 Hyundai Sonata, the warranty is 10 years. In contrast, the warranty on an ACDelco conventional car battery is three years or 36,000 miles, whichever comes first.
What this means is that you would likely go through about three conventional car batteries for every hybrid or electric battery. That takes us to the next point.
Standard car batteries are based on lead acid chemistry, and lead is toxic stuff that can leak into groundwater, where it can lead to developmental disabilities and other illnesses. This means conventional car batteries are actually more toxic, not less, than hybrid and electric car batteries, which are typically based on nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) and lithium-ion chemistries, respectively (although the 2011 Sonata uses a lithium battery). Although these materials are not totally benign, they are less dangerous than lead.
(True, a number of clean vehicles, including the Nissan Leaf, also have a conventional battery as well as a primary battery, for starting and a few other functions. But we think it's still instructive to point out that the technology we have been using for years is actually dirtier than newer advanced batteries.)
Remember, hybrid and electric car batteries last a long time, and consumer uptake of electric vehicles, in particular, has thus far been slow. In the words of Larry Dominique, vice president of product planning at Nissan, "We have some time to figure this out." Dominique told the panel at the Popular Mechanics conference that the industry is committed to supporting a responsible disposal and recycling infrastructure for spent batteries. As of now, it is illegal in many states to toss any lithium-ion batteries in the regular trash, and a recycling industry is gearing up. Lithium is fairly valuable, as are some of the other materials involved, and there is economic incentive to reuse the components.
Further, as Mike Millikin of Green Car Congress points out, NiMH batteries already have a pretty good track record of being recovered by car dealers and vehicle dismantling companies. And according to Millikin, Toyota recently announced an expanded recycling initiative for these batteries. In addition, the U.S. Department of Energy recently awarded $9.5 million toward a new lithium-ion recycling facility.
In a recent article in Earth911, Amanda Wills writes, "The good news is that these types of batteries are recyclable, and their valuable metal content is easily recoverable, namely cobalt, nickel and some other residuals. As for those models that we'll be using 10 years down the road, [Dana] Barka [of Call2Recycle] said recycling programs are likely to progress alongside battery innovation.
Mike Millikin of Green Car Congress adds that the industry is looking at second uses for used hybrid and electric car batteries, such as for stationary applications like renewable energy storage. The packs will still have around 80% of their original capacity, he suggests.
Lithium-ion batteries already power many devices we use everyday, notably cell phones and laptops, but also medical devices, watches and other products. However, critics rarely advocate avoiding such products on account of environmental impact. At the same time, growth in the industry is leading to greater recycling capability and cleaner chemistries and processes.
It's also worth nothing that fully electric cars like the Nissan Leaf dont need to use any motor oil (or get oil changes), so that's an added benefit that should be added into any environmental accounting. Similarly, electric cars have fewer moving parts, so they should require fewer repairs and replacement parts.
Although some pundits often suggest the contrary, it's true that the embodied energy (the amount of energy it took to manufacture the car, including the batteries) is only a small part of the total energy footprint of a car, with the majority coming from actual usage. GreenChoices.org says estimates suggest embodied energy equals about 15% of the total fuel used during the typical life of a vehicle. In this way, electric cars and hybrids clearly offer a green premium over standard vehicles.
Some people have pointed out that lithium mining is an intensive process, and that it is sometimes pursued in politically unstable or unfriendly locations. This is definitely an issue to be concerned with, but experts believe the benefits do still outweigh the risks. For one thing, car batteries aren't actually the driving force in the industry, given the bigger volume of cell phone batteries and other applications. Additionally, the industry is actively working to improve the efficiencies and environmental impacts of the mining.
Dominique added, "Lithium is actually very common, so we wouldn't be surprised if people figured out how to extract it from other sources. For example, it's very plentiful in the oceans."