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The Current

The Long, Sustainable Road to Electrification

By David Regan, VP of Commercial

In a recent article for Protocol, Nat Rubio-Licht and Sarah Roach documented the aggressive goals of automakers and governments worldwide to electrify driving. The authors make a case for the importance of prioritizing sustainability to avoid creating more environmental harm as the automotive industry works toward meeting the ambitious electric vehicle (EV) goals of the  recently enacted 2022 Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) in the U.S.and similar goals abroad. Auto manufacturers have responded with their own internal goals for producing EVs, creating an explosion of demand for the materials in Lithium-ion batteries (LiBs). 

As the IRA includes requirements for materials mined in the U.S., production for extracting metals at home must be rapidly scaled up, which presents real challenges. For the world to achieve the Paris Agreement goals for carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, according to the International Energy Association (IEA), we will need to mine by 2040 six times the current amounts of critical minerals —  lithium,cobalt, manganese, nickel, copper, graphite and and other minerals and elements. New mines can take up to 16 years to establish. This potentially puts manufacturers in a losing position in meeting production goals, and taking real steps forward towards limiting the more catastrophic impacts of climate change by 2030. 

The Protocol authors cite the use of recycled materials as one potential solution, but they acknowledge that standard hydrometallurgical and pyrometallurgical methods of LiB recycling create an environmental burden; pyro in particular utilizes smelting, a process that produces high carbon and particulate emissions, toxic wastewater, slag and chemical waste streams. 

The roughly 600,000 metric tons of lithium-ion battery waste expected from the first generation of EVs by 2025 is predicted to grow to 11 million metric tons worldwide by 2030, according to the World Economic Forum. By 2040, ​“recycled quantities of copper, lithium, nickel, and cobalt from spent batteries could reduce combined primary supply requirements for these minerals by around 10%,” according to the IEA report.  Without sustainable procurement – or extraction through recycling – of battery materials, the United States will not have enough metal to produce the batteries needed. The sustainable procurement and recycling of battery materials are as critical as EV adoption itself. 

It is counterintuitive to use non-sustainable energy to try to solve the climate and energy crisis, and yet that is what the primary LiB recycling processes on the market today – pyro and standard hydro – are set up to do. Aqua Metals is entirely committed to being net-zero; our AquaRefining technology uses a combination of electrochemical and electrowinning processes, predominantly replacing the use of chemicals with the use of electricity. The solution generates minimal waste, with the added benefit of yielding some of the purest extracted metals possible. As a result, AquaRefining is potentially the only lithium-ion battery recycling method on the market today capable of becoming net zero, thereby helping its customers achieve their net zero goals.

In order to make a seamless and effective transition to electric vehicles, the infrastructure created along the way must be taken into account. The dramatic shift from internal combustion to EVs requires planning and execution of a supply chain that is sustainable and ethical throughout, from the metal’s extraction to its life within an EV battery cell, to its reuse at that cell’s end of life.