Lithium-ion batteries need to be greener and more ethical

  • Nature EDITORIAL 29 June 2021

Nature 595, 7 (2021)


A low-carbon future rests on an essential, yet also problematic, technology. Lithium-ion rechargeable batteries — already widely used in laptops and smartphones — will be the beating heart of electric vehicles and much else. They are also needed to help power the world’s electric grids, because renewable sources, such as solar and wind energy, still cannot provide energy 24 hours a day. The market for lithium-ion batteries is projected by the industry to grow from US$30 billion in 2017 to $100 billion in 2025.

But this increase is not itself cost-free, as Nature Reviews Materials explored in a recent series of articles. Lithium-ion technology has downsides — for people and the planet. Extracting the raw materials, mainly lithium and cobalt, requires large quantities of energy and water. Moreover, the work takes place in mines where workers — including children as young as seven — often face unsafe conditions.

Policymakers, industry leaders and researchers need to mitigate these problems, and quickly, to reduce the unintended consequences of an important technology. One crucial intervention, which needs further study, is the acceleration of battery reuse instead of, or in addition to, recycling them or disposing of them in landfills.

Around one-third of the world’s lithium — the major component of the batteries — comes from salt flats in Argentina and Chile, where the material is mined using huge quantities of water in an otherwise arid area. Battery-grade lithium can also be produced by exposing the material to very high temperatures — a process used in China and Australia — which consumes large quantities of energy. There are ways to extract lithium more sustainably: in Germany and the United Kingdom, for example, pilot projects are filtering lithium from hot brines beneath granite rock.

Cobalt is an important part of a battery’s electrode, but around 70% of this element is found in just one country: the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Around 90% of the DRC’s cobalt comes from its industrial mines (90,000 tonnes annually). But in a country where people earn, on average, less than $1,200 annually, the world’s demand for cobalt has attracted thousands of individuals and small businesses, called artisanal miners — and child labour and unsafe working practices are rife.


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