The debate on how green electric cars really are often focuses upon two aspects – the type of energy sources powering the grid the vehicle’s batteries get their juice from, and the batteries themselves. It is this latter item which was recently the focus of an intense study examining the “cradle to grave” aspects of battery technology and what might be done to make them that much more environmentally friendly.

chevy volt battery resuse
Chevy Volt battery pack (image via GM)

The study, conducted by Abt Associates for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), noted that while lithium-ion batteries, used to provide the energy for plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles, can overall help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, there is still “areas for improvement to reduce possible environmental and public health impacts.” An example of this you might ask? Consider, noted Jay Smith, an Abt senior analyst and co-lead of the life-cycle assessment of the batteries, that the batteries that use cathodes

with nickel and cobalt, as well as solvent-based electrode processing, show the highest potential for certain environmental and human health impacts. The environmental impacts, Smith explained, include resource depletion, global warming, and ecological toxicity—primarily resulting from the production, processing and use of cobalt and nickel metal compounds, which can cause adverse respiratory, pulmonary and neurological effects in those exposed.
There are viable ways to reduce these impacts, he said, including cathode material substitution, solvent-less electrode processing and recycling of metals from the batteries.
This assessment, one of the first of its kind, sought to identify those specific materials or processes within the battery’s life cycle most likely to cause negative impacts on the world around them and what can be done to change this. One interesting angle in this vein was the consideration of the potential impacts of a nanotechnology innovation (i.e., a carbon nanotube anode) that could improve battery performance.
“The nanotechnology applications that Abt assessed were single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWCNTs), said Smith, “which are currently being researched for use as anodes as they show promise for improving the energy density and ultimate performance of the Li-ion batteries in vehicles.  What we found, however, is that the energy needed to produce the SWCNT anodes in these early stages of development is prohibitive. Over time, if researchers focus on reducing the energy intensity of the manufacturing process before commercialization, the environmental profile of the technology has the potential to improve dramatically.”
It is hoped that information from this study will help battery manufacturers improve the overall positive profile of the products, thus raising the green standard of the vehicles they power even higher.