Global demand for lithium, cobalt, nickel, and the other components of electric car and truck batteries is expected to skyrocket as more countries and automakers commit to making all new cars electric. As this demand grows, so does our responsibility to minimize the local environmental, equity, and human rights impacts from mining the materials needed for these batteries. Rising battery demand is also spurring initiatives to improve how they are made, how much they can be recycled, and how long they will last. Combined, these innovations could create a nearly circular and responsibly-sourced battery economy that can meet the accelerating shift to electric transportation.
The increasing shift to clean energy and electric cars and trucks is spurring major investments in supply chains for materials like lithium, cobalt, and nickel.
- $173 trillion will be invested in the clean energy transition over the next three decades, driving demand for sustainable automotive supply chains, especially around key battery materials.
- Lithium demand could increase by over 40 times over the next two decades. Demand for graphite, cobalt, and nickel could also climb by 20 to 25 times over this period.
- Lithium is abundant and producing it in the U.S. provides an opportunity for domestic economic growth. Current reserves are expected to carry the transition to electric cars and trucks through to the mid-century, and California’s Salton Sea is being eyed for domestic lithium production — and could meet 40 percent of global lithium demand.
The electric vehicle (EV) industry must address supply chain challenges and should be held to a high standard amid ongoing equity, human rights, and environmental issues for frontline communities.
- Some proposed lithium-rich sites, like Nevada’s Thacker Pass, are located on historic Indigenous lands. Internationally, Indigenous communities are often excluded from the benefits of the industry even when lithium is mined on their lands.
- Lithium mining can be land-, water-, and energy-intensive. Lithium production consumes nearly 65 percent of the water supply in Chile’s Salar de Atacama, and some lithium mining sites in Tibet and Argentina have contaminated local water supply.
- Cobalt mining has been a focus of human rights concerns, including allegations of forced labor, child labor, and other forms of exploitation in the supply chain. Safety conditions in mines are also reported to have worsened recently under Chinese management.
- The shift to EVs creates an opportunity to reshape global supply chains in more just and responsible ways.
New technologies, extraction techniques, and recycling capabilities are reducing the need for raw material for battery production and producing more sustainable batteries.
- New battery chemistries, advances in battery efficiency, and battery recycling are helping the EV industry reduce its reliance on new materials.
- An extraction method using ion-exchange beads can produce as much lithium from a one-acre system as traditional methods can extract from 10,000-acre systems. Other producers are extracting lithium from geothermal waters, which is far less energy- and resource-intensive than traditional methods (producing no emissions compared to 15,000kg in CO2 emissions per ton of lithium using hard rock mining).
- Cobalt has been eliminated from many batteries, and battery makers are replacing nickel with cheap and plentiful iron. Automakers are also investing in super-efficient solid-state batteries, which provide two to ten times the energy density of lithium-ion batteries of the same size.
- Battery recycling is poised to play a major role in meeting demand for these materials, including as much as 25 percent of the auto industry’s lithium demand and 35 percent of its cobalt and nickel needs by 2040. Recycling will also become more efficient as more batteries are decommissioned and the used battery supply increases.
- EVs batteries can also be used for other applications — like for home energy storage or secondary storage for electrical grids — long after they’ve been taken off the road. After 10 years of use, a car battery holding 50 kilowatt-hours will retain at least 80% of its capacity.