A Greener Lithium Battery Value Chain

Greener: How can we make lithium batteries more sustainable?

In the first part of this series, we looked at how and why lithium and batteries need to get better from a technology perspective. In the second part, we looked at how the supply chains can keep pace with the demands of a rapidly growing market.

In the third part of this series we look at one of the most challenging issues facing the lithium battery supply chain today: lithium batteries may be great drivers of green power, but the production of the batteries themselves can have a significant impact on the environment. Addressing and minimizing this risk is essential if lithium batteries are to fulfil their full potential.

Lithium ion batteries could enable 30% of the Paris-accord required carbon reductions in the transport and power sectors. (source: WEF)

Companies across the lithium battery value chain face a difficult balance – meeting growing demand with the global imperative to be more sustainable, both in addressing the sustainability of individual processes and components and addressing the carbon footprint of the whole-chain.

A lithium-battery requires not just lithium, but other elements like nickel, cobalt and graphite, and the extraction of each of these creates an environmental impact. For those businesses that mine and process these materials, employing new techniques that lessen the environmental impact is crucial. 

Lithium can require a large amount of water for processing. Since lithium is often mined in desert areas, this can mean diverting water from elsewhere – which can have impacts on local communities, and their own resource needs. Similarly, the process to extract graphite can produce a significant amount of dust that pollutes both the air and water.

For cobalt, the issues around sustainable sourcing are more ethical and social. Cobalt – which helps give stability to the cathode – is predominantly found in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and mining is often done by untrained workers or even child laborers. The industry is trying to tackle this in two ways. Firstly, by tracing the supply of cobalt through supply chain auditing projects, such as the Responsible Sourcing Network, which can make sure it has been mined ethically. Secondly, by finding ways to reduce the amount of cobalt in lithium batteries.

Alongside improving the sustainability of the current value chain, improving the recyclability of lithium batteries is crucial. Historically, lithium batteries have not been extensively recycled, and while there have been big improvements in the amount of materials that can be recovered from recycling the batteries, the cost of doing so meant it wasn’t economically viable. But we are close to reaching a critical mass in battery demand where it will become a necessity. 

Achieving this will require a systematic approach across the values chain. Designing batteries from the ground up, so that their recyclability is built in, and compliant with global industry standards.

The point is whether electric vehicle batteries can be recycled. The cost should pay off if all waste car batteries [in Japan] are collected and processed.

Akira Yoshino

To effectively scale battery recycling, it is critical to connect design to manufacturing. To be able to trace the elements of a battery’s design and plan a recycling program that can accommodate it. This may involve redesigning the battery pack or changing a process, so understanding what will need to change and how to manage its impact on the rest of the value chain is vital.  

The 3DEXPERIENCE platform gives designers the ability to understand what implementing their innovations would mean further down the value chain. Through digital twins, they can test and simulate both more sustainable processes but also how to integrate recycled technology into the system at scale. While a collaborative platform enables materials suppliers, manufacturers and OEMs to work together to get greater visibility on what would need to change to successfully implement these changes. The platform can even help companies participate in the design of new extractive processes, helping to promote sustainable practices from the ground up.