The Dirty Truth Behind Electric Vehicles

The procurement of raw materials and the difficulties in recycling batteries show that electric vehicles are not as green and sustainable as we're prone to believe.

Electric cars in Leipzig, Germany
Electric cars in Leipzig, Germany
Joachim Becker

MUNICH — Volkswagen wants to become the world's biggest environmentally-friendly automaker, with 100,000 electric vehicles a year from 2020 and one million from 2025. Where coal-fired power has left ugly patches, the eco-balance is to become spotlessly clean.

"When we say that we are delivering a carbon-neutral vehicle, this naturally includes battery cell production," says Thomas Ulbrich, member of the VW Board of Management and responsible for E-Mobility.

But what about battery materials? Ulbrich doesn't seem to have anything new to say about the disposal of batteries. The truth is that there is still no recycling system for the enormous quantities of batteries required for the shift to electric vehicles.

Burning through batteries

Until now, the life cycle of used batteries has been a broken chain. Half of all portable batteries on the market disappear without a trace. This is what the German environmental research institute Öko-Institut has shown in a new study for the EU Commission. Instead of being sorted and recycled, 35,000 tons of batteries ended up in household waste throughout Europe in 2015 alone. That's 16% of the 212,000 tons that were put on the market in 2015. Not to mention the many small batteries and small appliances that are disposed of in addition.

Even Germany failed to meet the EU prescribed collection quota of 45% for electronic waste in 2016. Starting in 2019, the EU will raise that quota to 65%.

The revenue from the sale of the recycled materials doesn't outweigh the costs of collection, dismantling and recycling.

A large part of e-waste will, however, continue to flow into dark channels. The German Academy of Engineering Sciences (Acatech) believes that 25 to 30% of the electronic waste generated in Europe will be exported illegally — including batteries. Nobody wants to know exactly what happens to hazardous waste in regions with low environmental standards. This will hardly change with electric vehicles exported to Africa or Eastern Europe at the end of their lives.

"Old lithium-ion batteries don't have any market value, unlike what many had expected," says Falk Petrikowski, battery expert at the German Environment Agency. "Recycling is expensive, partly because of the many components and the complex dismantling of the different traction batteries. The revenue from the sale of the recycled materials doesn't outweigh the costs of collection, dismantling and recycling."

Things look better with the old automotive batteries that are used to start the engines of traditional cars: Three-quarters of lead-acid batteries are made of metal, are easy to recycle and fetch a used price of around 500 euros per ton. The almost 100% recycling rate shows that the business is lucrative. However, lead-acid batteries are a phase-out model because they are too large and too heavy in relation to their capacity.

The growing popularity of electric bicycles is placing on the market large quantities of lithium-ion batteries, which are much heavier than in small appliances but don't last much longer on average. "Despite the increasing importance of lithium-ion batteries in new technologies such as e-bikes, there are no separate collection or recycling targets for them," says Hartmut Stahl, scientist at the Öko-Institut and main author of the study on the battery collection rate in Europe.

"That's where an improved directive must come in, with ambitious targets for key elements such as lithium and cobalt, for example," he says. "The current EU Batteries Directive classifies lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles as a type of industrial battery. But there's neither a collection nor a recycling quota for these batteries."

BMW, Northvolt and Umicore want to develop a "closed life-cycle loop for batteries." But even the Belgian raw materials and recycling giant Umicore doesn't yet have a blueprint for this. Many recyclers are missing out on valuable resources such as lithium and graphite. Since 2012, Volkswagen has been involved in the so-called "LithoRec" (recycling of lithium-ion batteries) project, which is scientifically supported by the University of Münster and the Braunschweig University of Technology. In Braunschweig, a small pilot plant for processing used batteries was also built in 2016.

In Seeheim, Germany — Photo: Silas Stein/DPA/ZUMA

The Öko-Institut says that this process strikes a good environmental balance: It is possible to recover not only metals such as cobalt, nickel and manganese, but also lithium, in a process whereby 100% of these materials can be reused in new batteries. But the process in not cost-effective yet. Until now, a "sustainable life cycle" has been too expensive because a lot of manual work and energy has to be used for recycling purposes.

In addition, the Öko-Institut calculates that an average of 300 kilometers have to be covered in order to transport the batteries from a decentralized garage to an industrial waste disposal company. And for safety reasons, the batteries must be transported in sand, otherwise incompletely discharged batteries can heat up and possibly catch fire. Last year in California, 65% of fires in waste facilities were caused by lithium-ion batteries.

Resource-driven recycling

How efficient recycling processes are depends on the automated dismantling and sorting processes. "The various methods used until now offer considerable potential for ecological and economic optimization through further technological development and the development of larger plants in the future," says Matthias Buchert, who heads the Resources and Transport Department at the Öko-Institut.

One problem is the absolute jumble you find when it comes to battery types. Each manufacturer treats its batteries as a trade secret and constantly changes the cell chemistry. Without precise construction plans and specifications, used batteries become a pile of waste instead of high-quality raw materials.

Apple wants to take the process into its own hands in order to be able to build its devices entirely from secondary raw materials in the long term. The computer manufacturer calculates that 100,000 iPhones contain 1900 kg of aluminum, 710 kg of copper, 770 kg of cobalt, and 11 kg of rare earth. Daisy, a specially developed recycling robot, knows the construction plans of nine iPhone versions. Instead of chasing the electronic scrap through the shredder into a blast furnace, it dismantles 200 smartphones per hour with surgical precision. The recycling robot is only available in Breda, Holland, and in Austin, Texas.

If a quarter of all new cars are to be powered by electricity by 2025, as the EU Commission demands, it means that some 20 million electric vehicles will be on Europe's roads. The German raw materials agency Dera is expecting an annual demand of 700 gigawatt-hours for battery power in 2026, almost two-thirds of which will be attributable to batteries for electric vehicles. That's the equivalent of 20 Giga factories like Tesla's battery factory in Nevada.

According to Dera, annual demand for cobalt will double to around 225,000 tons by then. So far, only 10% of the bluish ore comes from recycling. Nothing will change in the near future: Volkswagen guarantees a residual capacity of 80% for its lithium-ion batteries after eight years. After that, they can be used as stationary storage units for photovoltaic systems, for example. Only after 2025 will larger quantities be returned to the cycle.

The problem is that it will make recycling even less economical due to the shrinking proportion of the precious material.

For the time being, Europe and the rest of the world will depend on cobalt from the Congo. "Even the largest new projects currently being developed are all located in Congo, so much so that the concentration of supply will increase to over 70% by 2026," says Siyamend Al Barazi, Dera's cobalt expert. "But because the development of new production capacities isn't on the cards, there can be considerable supply problems," he adds.

The raw materials agency is already taking into account an altered metal mix for lithium-ion batteries. Thanks to new developments, the cobalt content, which ensures the long-term stability of the cathodes, can be halved. This is good news for raw material consumption and security of supply. The problem is that it will make recycling even less economical due to the shrinking proportion of the precious material.

Cobalt from the Congo shows the dirty side of the energy revolution. Child labor and the financing of armed conflicts repeatedly lead to scandals surrounding the procurement of raw materials. Dera says that cobalt has the highest procurement risks of all battery materials.

A study by the Helmholtz-Institute Ulm for Electrochemical Energy Storage says that the demand for cobalt for batteries will be twice as high as today's identified reserves by 2050. By then at the latest, recycling will become a matter of life and death for individual mobility.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport


Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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