Quirks and Quarks·Analysis

More electric cars on the road will mean increased mining for what goes in their batteries

Bob McDonald's blog: Considering the environmental and social impacts of mining to ensure green technologies will benefit people and the planet.

Bob McDonald's blog: Moving to carbon-free energy future will result more intense mining operations

Workers assemble the powertrain with an electric motor and battery of a VW ID.3 electric cars at the Volkswagen factory on July 31, 2020 in Zwickau, Germany. (Jens Schlueter/Getty Images)

The rise in demand for electric vehicles will require increased mining for metals and possibly increasing environmental consequences.

With all major auto manufacturers bringing electric vehicles into production in an effort to catch up to the popularity of Tesla, there will be a rising demand for metals and other resources necessary for the manufacture of millions of new batteries. This raises concerns about the environmental and social impact of more intense mining operations.

In a report in the journal Nature Reviews Materials, British earth scientist Richard Herrington points out that by the year 2035, there could be 245 million battery electric vehicles on the road. In addition, there will be a huge demand for stationary batteries needed for energy storage to compensate for the less consistent output of clean energy sources such as wind and solar. 

Aerial view of a tailings dams and embankments used to store byproducts of mining operations, in this case of the extraction of copper in Rancagua, Chile on May 31, 2019. (Martin Bernetti/AFP via Getty Images)

As we move toward a carbon-free energy future, Herrington identifies 12 elements that will see increasing demand. These are essential ingredients for batteries, and for the manufacture of wind turbines and solar panels.

Three vital elements — carbon (in the form of graphite), cobalt and lithium — will need an increase in production of almost 500 per cent above current levels.

A worker walks in front of brine pools at the Rockwood Lithium plant on the Atacama salt flat, the largest lithium deposit currently in production, in the Atacama desert of northern Chile in 2013. (Ivan Alvarado/Reuters)

Potential negative consequences of mining

Mining, in some parts of the world, does not have a good track record of environmental stewardship. The world's second-largest producer of lithium (after Australia) is Chile, where the metal is obtained from salt brines in the Atacama Desert. 

The locals living around there are in an ongoing dispute with the mining companies claiming the operations, which use a lot of water for extraction, could have serious impact on the delicate ecosystem of the driest desert on Earth.

Protestors hold banners during a rally in Santiago in 2015, supporting the towns in the Choapa River Valley who had been blocking access to Los Pelambres copper mine. (Ivan Alvarado/Reuters)

More than half of the world's cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is known for political unrest and problems with child labour. A large increase in mining operations has the potential to exacerbate environmental and social disruption.

To avoid some of these issues, the key to meeting this rising demand, the report says, is effective recycling that will relieve pressure on mining.

Industry is already good at recycling some metals such as aluminum and cobalt, but currently, only one per cent of the lithium in the global supply chain is from recycled sources. Industry is struggling to develop ways to recycle the lower value elements of old batteries economically. Often, using new material is simply cheaper.

An employee sorts out old batteries at an urban mining plant in Gunsan, South Korea. (Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters)

Innovation from research

One glimmer of hope in this rising demand for a limited resource is the rapid developments in battery technology. Lithium-ion battery technology is improving steadily, and solid state batteries due to come into production in the mid-2020s promise greater energy density, which means longer range, and longer lifetimes.

Some of this work is happening right here. Canadian researcher Jeffrey Dahn at Dalhousie University is working on a "million-mile battery" for Tesla.

If these new long-lasting batteries make it to market and meet expectations, they could outlast the cars they're built for. Maybe the same battery could be used in more than one vehicle, making re-use an easy part of the process.

A Tesla Model Y charges at a EV charge station in January 2021. Share prices for lithium miners and battery makers continue to rise as global demand for electric vehicles continues to grow. (Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

The industrial revolution was driven by fossil fuels that were dug out of the ground. As industry became global, demand for those resources led to conflict, social disruption and environmental degradation.

Now a new green industrial revolution is taking place that depends on different limited resources in the ground. We'll need to proceed carefully to achieve a clean energy future without those negative consequences. 


Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.

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