Unveiling the Environmental Impacts of Large-Scale Lithium-Ion Battery Production

In this SEC funded project, Chalmers PhD Student Mudit Chordia sheds light on the critical factors influencing the life cycle of these energy storage devices. The investigation aims to unravel the complex web of environmental impacts associated with the production and recycling of lithium-ion batteries.

Mudit Chordia is supervised by Anders Nordelöf and their initial objective was to map the lithium-ion battery production (LIB) processes and identify the processes with the highest energy demand and environmental impacts. As the study progressed, he realized that due to upscaling of production and use of low carbon intensive sources of energy for cell production, the highest environmental impacts  were occurring upstream (i.e., raw material extraction and processing) from cell production. The project ultimately encompassed an analysis of the supply chains for key raw materials, particularly lithium, which is currently the dominant technology for EV applications and are also an important input in several upcoming battery chemistries.

Mudit Chordia

Unveiling the Role of the Upstream Supply Chain in Driving Environmental Impacts

The preliminary findings emphasize the critical role of the upstream supply chain in driving environmental impacts. As LIB production scales up, economies of scale lead to improved material and energy efficiency and overall reduced impacts from cell production. Furthermore, by employing low-carbon-intensity sources for battery production, the environmental footprint can be further minimized.

Addressing Efficiency and Minimizing Environmental Footprint through Low-Carbon-Intensity Sources

” Environmental impacts tend to be higher in the upstream phase where the raw materials used in lithium ion batteries are mined,extracted, and processed, especially when cells are produced at large-scale using low carbon intensive sources of energy,” says Chordia. 

In such cases, Chordia tried to understand how the situation differs in different regions that supply the raw materials for LIBs. For some of the mining and processing activites, it might be quite possible to have renewable electricity instead of fossil-based electricity, which lowers the overall environmental impacts. However, some processing activities might require large amounts of heat which might be exclusively sourced from burning fossils making it challenging to reduce overall environmental impacts.  Specific to lithium extraction in the salars in South America, water use is identified as an environmental challenge.

Balancing Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Local Pollution Issues throughout the Supply Chain

Chordia stresses the importance of addressing both greenhouse gas emissions and local pollution issues throughout the supply chain. While the upstream mining processes are often the major polluters, the significance of addressing emissions during battery production should not be overlooked. Comparing low-carbon-intensive regions like Sweden and high-carbon-intensive regions like South Korea, the need for holistic environmental management strategies is evident.

Chordia’s study serves as a timely contribution to the ongoing discussions surrounding the environmental impacts of lithium-ion battery production. By shedding light on the complex supply chains and inherent challenges, this research lays the groundwork for future improvements in sustainable battery manufacturing processes and contributes to the ongoing global efforts.

Relevant publications:

Environmental life cycle implications of upscaling lithium-ion battery production

Life cycle environmental impacts of current and future battery-grade lithium supply from brine and spodumene