This article is part of our special report Navigating the road ahead for battery tech.
Electric vehicles are becoming more popular and attractive as prices fall and charging infrastructure becomes more widespread. Dr Mark Mistry explains what factors affect the sustainability of one of the most important ingredients in a car’s battery: nickel.
Dr Mark Mistry is senior manager for public policy at the Nickel Institute.
The COVID-19 crisis has almost made us forget that our society is confronted with severe long-term threats and challenges.
On the one hand, the growing world population will require more and better food, clean water, accommodation, health care – and is expected to require more mobility.
On the other, the climate change challenge requires us to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions significantly. The transport sector accounts for roughly a quarter of all GHG emissions globally. Green mobility is therefore essential to achieve the GHG emission reduction targets and at the same time provide transportation that society requires.
At the end of 2019, the new European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, stressed in the mission letter to her Commissioner for Transport, Adina Vălean, the importance of smart and sustainable mobility.
She also highlighted the necessity of “increasing the uptake of sustainable and alternative transport fuels for road, maritime and air transport”.
The electrification of individual transport is one of the top priorities for the Commission, with electrical vehicles at their heart. Despite the COVID-19 crisis, the revision of the EU battery directive remains a priority and it shows the long term thinking of the European authorities.
A critical aspect in the revision of the EU battery directive is – for the first time – the inclusion of new battery technologies for electrical vehicles.
The Commission is committed to striking the right balance from the start. While the European Battery Alliance aims at establishing a full electrical vehicle battery value chain in Europe, the Commission wants to ensure that this is done without compromising other public policy targets, such as those outlined in the EU Green Deal or the new EU Circular Economy Action Plan.
The revision of the EU battery directive looks at all elements of battery value chains, from raw materials production to battery manufacturing and use, as well as their end of life. It will play a critical role to ensure that the targets of all affected policy initiatives are aligned.
Batteries rely on a range of raw materials. Cobalt, nickel, lithium, manganese and aluminium are the major inputs to battery cathodes, while the anode consists of graphite.
The environmental, social and economic aspects of raw materials are under scrutiny, and the Commission has therefore put a spotlight on them. The new battery regulation will ensure that raw materials going into EV batteries for example, are manufactured, used and recycled in a sustainable manner.
And this leads to several questions: are these raw materials produced, processed and used sustainably? Where are the sustainability challenges? And how can these be addressed in the new battery regulation?
Let’s look at these questions from a nickel perspective.
Is nickel mined and produced in a responsible manner?
Major nickel producers comply with responsible sourcing codes and report on their environmental, health and safety performance. It is also very positive to see that partnerships are set up within the battery value chain, such as those between Nornickel and BASF; Umicore and BMW; or between Eramet, BASF and Suez.
Such partnerships ensure scrutiny of the origin of nickel, the environmental performance along the supply chain and throughout recycling, as well as measures to protect workers and local communities.
How significant is the nickel contribution to the total battery footprint?
The carbon footprint and sustainability of batteries is the subject of intense debate. The metals contained in batteries are sometimes considered significant contributors to the total carbon footprint of a battery.
It is true that the production of metals such as nickel is energy intensive and recent studies show that raw materials account for 15% of the total battery carbon footprint. The nickel share in batteries with nickel, manganese and cobalt in the battery cathode (NMC batteries) accounts for 7% of the battery carbon footprint.
A comparison of historic and recent life cycle data shows that since 2007, the nickel industry has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by a further 9%. The industry continues to work on lowering greenhouse gas emissions, and further reducing the contribution of nickel to the carbon footprint of batteries.
How sustainable are nickel containing EV battery technologies during use?
Nickel is the cathode material of choice for high performing Li-ion batteries. Possessing a higher voltage and nearly twice the energy density of other materials, high nickel Li-ion batteries allow an electric vehicle to travel much farther between recharging and with less weight.
Single crystal nickel cathodes are also being commercialized that will increase the cycle-life of these batteries so that they can provide additional energy storage in powering residences while the vehicle is not being driven.
What is the sustainability performance of recycled batteries?
Nickel and other metals such as cobalt have a high economic value which incentivizes collection and recycling of EV batteries. Nickel and cobalt are recycled at highest recycling efficiencies – a clear sustainability advantage for nickel-containing batteries compared to other technologies where recycling currently remains unresolved.
And nickel-containing EV battery technologies also have an attractive second life. Their longevity means they can be repurposed – for example in renewable energy storage when their application in an EV reaches its end of life.
Reuse and recycling have a positive environmental impact on the battery’s life cycle performance. The EU’s new battery regulation therefore should promote the second use of batteries.
Sustainable throughout the value chain
In conclusion, the short answer to the opening question is: yes, nickel can be a sustainable material throughout the entire value chain, from mining, manufacturing, to use and end of life – if all actors throughout the value chain step up and take their responsibility.