What On Earth

Electric cars are booming. But what are the environmental costs of all those batteries?

The EV surge comes with environmental trade-offs, but some Canadian upstarts are doing things differently.

The EV surge comes with environmental trade-offs, but some Canadian upstarts are doing things differently

Millions of new electric cars mean millions of batteries, and those batteries are made from metals including lithium, nickel and cobalt. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Around the world, the electric car industry is kicking into overdrive — but while many are cheering the shift away from fossil fuels, some are raising alarms about possible environmental risks.

In recent months, General Motors announced they're going all-electric by 2035; Ford announced an all-electric model of its F-150 pickup, the bestselling vehicle in North America; and carmakers from Volkswagen to Volvo have outlined plans to eventually produce only EVs.

In April, U.S. President Joe Biden's administration earmarked $174 billion US to help boost the electric car industry, and even took an all-electric F-150 for a spin.

According to the International Environment Agency (IEA), global electric car sales have grown from 20,000 in 2010 to 4.79 million in 2019.

In Canada, zero-emission vehicles represented 3.5 per cent of total new vehicle registrations in the last three months of 2020, with more than 54,000 registered in that quarter alone. 

Chief Steeve Mathias of Long Point First Nation in Quebec says his community has serious environmental concerns about possible lithium mining in their territory. (Submitted by Steeve Mathias)

Of course, millions of new electric cars mean millions of batteries made from metals including lithium, nickel and cobalt.

Canada is rich in those minerals, so many in the mining and manufacturing industries see huge economic potential. But several groups, including the Long Point First Nation, want to hit the brakes.

Earlier this month, the First Nation officially asked the Government of Quebec to suspend the mining rights of Australia's Sayona Mining, which has done lithium exploration work in Long Point's traditional territory.

Chief Steeve Mathias says operations are proposed for areas used in traditional practices such as hunting and fishing. Residents expressed concerns over potential water contamination from mine waste at a recent information session

"They always tell us, 'Let us develop first and we'll deal with this later,'" Mathias told What On Earth.

"And our elders always tell us: Don't believe them, because later never comes."

For Long Point to support the mine, says Mathias, industry and government would need to demonstrate that there is "no impact on our traditional way of life," and the First Nation would require an independent study to assess potential damage.

"The exploitation to get the minerals to produce those lithium batteries, how damaging is that going to be for the environment?" he said.

"Are we willing to sacrifice that just for the sake of electric cars? I'm not sure that's the right thing to do."

Mathias says mining operations are proposed for areas where people take part in traditional practices such as hunting and fishing, including near Lac Simard. (Submitted by Steeve Mathias)

In an emailed statement to What On Earth, Sayona Québec said it "will not be undertaking any activities at Tansim without the necessary support of Long Point First Nation and all other key stakeholders."

The statement also said Sayona Québec's lithium projects will supply battery metals to North America's EV industry, which in turn will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

"We will continue to consult closely to ensure the best possible environmental and economic outcomes for the community."

'We will need some raw materials'

Joanna Kyriazis, senior policy advisor with Clean Energy Canada, acknowledges that the push toward electrification comes with environmental trade-offs.

"Whether it's solar panels and wind turbines or EVs and their batteries, we will need some raw materials to feed into those technologies, which means, at least in the short-term, some more mining," Kyriazis told What On Earth host Laura Lynch.

Project Arrow could lead to the country's first all-Canadian electric concept car. Hear more about it by clicking the play button at top. (Submitted by APMA)

As long as it's done responsibly, she argued, Canada could become a central player in the battery industry, and the benefits could outweigh the downsides. 

That means electrifying mining operations wherever possible, engaging Indigenous communities in project development and ownership, and supporting battery recycling.

"Canada in the last 20 years has seen a downward trend in our auto sector — but recent investments to bring EV production here from Ford motors, General Motors, and even Stellantis are showing a bright spot on the horizon," said Kyriazis.

The key, she argues, is building a made-in-Canada battery supply chain, or the country risks getting left in the dust.

"We could lose auto jobs. We could lose the opportunity to leverage these leading clean tech companies, like the battery recycling companies. And we could lose those jobs to other countries."

'A heck of a lot smarter'

Companies like Calgary startup Summit Nanotech are making a business out of reducing the impact of lithium mining.

While on holiday in Tibet, geophysicist and company founder Amanda Hall saw locals extracting lithium from salt flats, which gave her an idea: pull brine up from the ground, remove the lithium, then return the saltwater.

Geologist Amanda Hall is the founder and CEO of Calgary startup Summit Nanotech, which extracts lithium from brine. (Submitted by Amanda Hall)

"We create a lot less waste, we don't use any fresh water, we reduce land use area by 26 times [and] we reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 per cent," said Hall, who is launching a pilot in Chile, and hopes to eventually bring the technology home to Canada.

"The process is just a heck of a lot smarter, honestly. And then on top of all that, it's more economic," she added.

"We get twice as much lithium out of the same volume of brine."

'We can get there'

Eventually, those millions of EV batteries will die, posing yet another environmental risk — but Jean-Christophe Lambert is hoping to steer the industry in a different direction.

The business development manager with Quebec's Lithion Recycling says most EV batteries are recycled because they are extremely heavy — roughly 300-400 kilograms — and their components are valuable.

Batteries from electric cars await recycling at Lithion Recycling outside Montreal. (Submitted by Lithion Recycling)

Most battery recycling involves smelting, which produces greenhouse gases, and only recovers 40 to 50 per cent of battery materials.

Smelting also alters the metals in a way that they can't be used to manufacture more batteries, Lambert explained. The nickel and cobalt are instead used to create alloys, while the lithium and electrolytes are lost.

Lithion is using hydrometallurgy, a chemical process that recovers 95 per cent of materials, including lithium. The process also retains the quality of the materials, so they can be used to produce more batteries, and cut down on the need for new metals.

"We're putting so much effort, as a society, into getting those minerals out of the ground, that it's almost an insult to send them into landfills after just one life," said Lambert.

Jean-Christophe Lambert says Lithion Recycling has found a more efficient and environmentally friendly way of recycling EV batteries. (Submitted by Jean-Christophe Lambert)

In March, Hyundai Canada announced an agreement with Lithion to recover and recycle some of its EV batteries.

Lambert acknowledges that mining comes with environmental impacts, and it will take engineering and new industrial processes before greener recycling can be scaled to a large commercial level.

"This will take a lot of time, and mining is going to be the predominant source of materials for a few decades still, unfortunately," says Lambert. 

"But at one point we can get there. I think this is where the industry as a whole needs to go."

Written by Jennifer van Evra. Produced by Serena Renner.