Lithium produced for Tesla’s batteries is less polluting than 31 cups of coffee: researcher

(Credit: Tesla)

There are many criticisms of electric vehicles like Teslas, and one of them involves the notion that EVs require massive amounts of water to produce the lithium in their batteries. This idea, according to Dr. Maximilian Fichtner, who serves as the Director at the Helmholtz Institute for Electrochemical Energy Storage in Germany, is not accurate at all. 

In a recent conversation with Tagesspiegel Background, the battery researcher stated that the production of electric car batteries is not as extreme as what EV critics would suggest. To produce the lithium needed for a 64 kWh battery pack, for example, Fichtner stated that about 3840 liters of water are evaporated according to usual calculation methods. This is roughly comparable to the production of 250 grams of beef, 30 cups of coffee, or half a pair of jeans, according to the researcher. 

Explaining further, Fichtner stated that even before electric cars like Teslas became popular, lithium was already being used in large quantities in many industrial and chemical processes. Lithium-ion batteries are also widely used in mobile devices, which are universally accepted today. “I’m always surprised that the public never talks about lithium in laptops or mobile phones – but suddenly it’s a problem with the e-car,” the battery researcher said. 

But the water consumption involved in the production of lithium for electric car batteries is just the tip of the iceberg. Fichtner estimates that a 64 kWh pack is likely in the middle of various variants of the Tesla Model 3 sedan, whose long-range versions can easily go beyond 450 km (280 miles) of range per charge. If one were to infer that an electric car battery pack can remain optimal with 2,000 full charging cycles, this could equate to a total distance of about 900,000 km. And that’s with estimates on existing battery technology

With this in mind, it appears that Tesla’s lithium-ion batteries are actually less polluting than otherwise everyday items such as steak or the aforementioned 30 cups of coffee, since they have the potential to remain in service for a very long time. About 2,000 charging cycles, after all, would likely equate to years of average EV use.

Companies like Tesla are hard at work in improving their battery cells. This much is hinted at by Tesla executives such as CEO Elon Musk and President of Automotive Jerome Guillen, both of whom have noted that Tesla’s batteries are always evolving. Fichtner expects electric car batteries to have an average lifespan of 3,000 cycles by 2025, which would make EV batteries even more environmentally-friendly. 

In his recent conversation with the publication, the researcher discussed one of the most sensitive topics surrounding battery production: cobalt. Cobalt has developed a very negative reputation due to the abhorrent conditions in cobalt mines in areas such as Congo. Fortunately, many automakers have since pledged to source the cobalt used in their EVs from areas that meet stringent standards. Tesla does this and more, with the electric car maker attempting to develop cobalt-free batteries in the near future. 

For now, electric car makers are in a game of cobalt reduction, and in this sense, Tesla has a notable lead. The batteries used in Volkswagen’s well-received ID.3 hatchback, for example, contain about 12-14% cobalt. The Tesla Model 3, on the other hand, only contains about 2.9% cobalt as of 2018. Fichtner predicts that if things go well, cobalt-free batteries could enter the market as early as 2025. 

Maximilian Fichtner received his Ph.D. in Chemistry/Surface Science with distinction and the Hermann Billing Award for his thesis in 1992. He currently serves as the professor for Solid State Chemistry at the Ulm University and Executive Director of the Helmholtz Institute Ulm for Electrochemical Energy Storage (HIU). He has also worked in collaboration with the German ministries of Economy and Research and Education, and has served as the Chair of the 1st International Symposium on Magnesium Batteries in 2016.

Lithium produced for Tesla’s batteries is less polluting than 31 cups of coffee: researcher
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