Watt's up with battery LCA?
Learning about LCA with our friends at Minviro
Watt's up with battery LCA?
In today's world, we need to address the environmental impacts of battery supply chains, and the EU Commission is leading the way in promoting a sustainable and competitive battery industry.
The introduction of the European Battery Regulations as part of the European Green Deal will impose stricter regulations on batteries, making it essential to evaluate and minimise the environmental impact throughout their entire lifecycle.1 This regulation is agnostic of cell chemistry, and even yet-to-come battery types will be under scrutiny. This lifecycle approach will ensure that all batteries put into the European market, regardless of chemical make-up, are manufactured with as minimal impact on the environment as currently possible, as well as contribute to Europe's goal of climate neutrality by 2025.2
The go-to methodology for this type of evaluation is life cycle assessment (LCA). Supported by ISO standards 14040/44, LCA is a widely used and effective tool that helps to understand the environmental impacts of a product, process, or system by evaluating the item’s environmental impact at every stage of its life from raw material extraction to final product manufacturing, and even use or disposal.
In the case of batteries, this means being able to assess the environmental impact of mineral extraction (for example, the mining and refining of lithium, cobalt, and manganese) all the way to battery recycling and disposal for different battery supply chains and all types of batteries (Figure 1).
LCA also allows for a holistic assessment of the types of environmental impacts. While greenhouse gas emissions are a significant environmental impact to understand and mitigate, it is not the only environmental impact. In addition to global warming potential, an LCA will also examine things like:
water scarcity footprint
depletion of non-renewable resources
impacts on human health caused by releasing particulate matter in the air
the potential absorption of carcinogenic and non-carcinogenic substances
impacts to land use
impacts to biodiversity
Other sustainability trends gaining momentum in the battery supply chain industry are due diligence, supply chain transparency, and traceability. Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) need help accessing upstream data, and while they may know the provenance of the raw materials, other technical, social, or environmental aspects might not be shared or get lost within the supply chain. Therefore, having access to reliable and accurate data is essential to promote sustainability in the battery supply chain.
In battery supply chains, the anode and cathode often emerge as the key drivers of environmental impact.3 This can be attributed to the embodied impacts of specific raw materials, especially those utilised in the cathode components, reagents and chemicals, and energy required throughout production. As upstream refining processes tend to be raw material and/or energy-intensive, this stage tends to bear a more significant impact on the final product. Thus, strategic sourcing of low-impact battery raw materials can significantly decrease the environmental footprint of battery packs. More downstream of the supply chain, the energy required in cell assembly and battery pack production is typically the predominant impact source. Several impact reduction strategies can be implemented during the manufacturing stage, for example, by transitioning to more efficient energy setups or adopting renewable electricity where feasible.
The environmental impact of raw materials can vary significantly depending on where and how they are produced. If the raw materials occur naturally, the geological conditions of the deposit (i.e. grade, mineralogy) will influence the processing and purification methods to reach battery-grade quality. The use of chemicals, electricity, and heat during production will affect the environmental impact of intermediate and final products to varying degrees as well. If the materials are synthetically produced, it is essential to account for the embodied impact of the active material precursors and the source of the energy requirements needed for the production of the battery-grade component in question.
However, the latter can be challenging to determine due to feedstock uncertainties and regional characteristics, as illustrated in Minviro's white paper on graphite supply chains. For instance, the embodied impact of the electricity used for graphitization during the production of battery-grade synthetic graphite is particularly sensitive to regional grid mixes, hence significantly impacting its environmental footprint. In fact, synthetic graphite produced with a coal-dominant grid mix may have ten times higher environmental impact per kilogram compared to the same product produced using a renewable-dominant grid mix.4
An additional challenge is data. LCA models require accurate and precise data from resource extraction to battery pack manufacturing, including precursor and cathode active material (pCAM and CAM) production, anode production, electrolyte and other battery components like copper and aluminium foils, separators, and structural aluminium, to name a few. There is an increasing need for up-to-date and accurate data, especially for emerging battery technologies, to leverage and harness the benefits of LCA. The significant variability in supply chain parameters can result in wildly different battery environmental performances (Figure 2).
LCA has been very beneficial for battery manufacturers like Tesla by enabling an in-depth understanding of current and prospective supply chains and unlocking environmental management and impact reduction strategies that were previously unknown or not understood.56 As standardisation progresses in the community and regulations have come into force, now is the time to get familiar with LCA as a decision-making tool for decarbonisation businesses!
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