Cathode material substitution, solvent-less electrode processing and recycling metals from batteries can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other negative environmental effects from manufacturing lithium ion (Li-ion) batteries, according to a study by Abt Associates for the EPA.
The EPA commissioned the study to assess the environmental and health impacts of Li-ion batteries, which are used in plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles, so manufacturers could use the information to improve the sustainability profile of their products while the technology is still in the emerging stages.
The EPA also wanted to evaluate the potential of nanotechnology to improve battery performance.
Abt Associates says the process of manufacturing nickel and cobalt metal compounds — used to coat the cathode — and the solvents used in processing the electrode in the batteries are the primary culprits that harm the environment and the health of those exposed to the chemicals.
To improve energy density and battery performance, researchers assessed the potential of single-walled carbon nanotubes, which are being researched for use as anodes, and found that producing them requires a “prohibitive” amount of energy. But if researchers can find a way to reduce the energy intensity involved in producing them, then the nanotube anodes’ environmental profile can dramatically improve, says the study’s lead analyst, Jay Smith.
Where the electric vehicle’s batteries are charged also alters its environmental impact – cars driven in California and New England draw energy from grids that source more energy from renewable resources, while cars in the South and Midwest rely more on coal-based grids.
A majority of hybrid electric vehicles (HEV) use nickel metal hydride technology for the rechargeable batteries, but the study says that will change as Li-ion technology gains ground, since it has better energy storage capacity. By 2015, it will capture 30 percent of the HEV market and by 2020, it will own 70 percent of that market.
The Obama administration has set a goal of 1 million EVs on the road by 2015 and as the market for EVs and HEVs grows, the Li-ion battery market will also surge, the study says, citing projections from other studies.
The global market for Li-ion batteries in light duty vehicles will grow from $1.6 billion in 2012 to almost $22 billion in 2020, according to a Pike Research report published earlier this month. The free report, Electric Vehicle Batteries, says the Asia Pacific region will continue to lead the global Li-ion battery market with China replacing Japan as the leader in automotive Li-ion battery production by 2015.