E-vehicle batteries — future environmental hazard

By Rajiv Theodore

New Delhi, Dec. 14, 2018: It is that time of the season once again—not to revel in the yuletide season and new year bashes but to duck under the swarm of pollutants along with poisonous gases in the very air we breathe.

Parts of the country are once again in the thrall of bad air slamming millions of Indians with soot, dust, vehicle exhausts, crop burning residues to name a few.

On top of this there is little being done on the ground to stem this lethal wave. Professor Kirk Smith, who is an authority on global environmental health at the University of California, Berkley, has observed that India has several anti-pollution laws, but none enforced well.

As if this is not enough, other pollutants like e-waste is a disaster waiting to happen anytime. Only 1.5 percent of e-waste generated in India gets recycled. Zero awareness about e-waste and its recycling, as well as the role of the unorganized sector, is the added challenges to the problem.

The base metals which can be reused are lost and results soil contamination due to unorganized and crude dismantling. India ranks fifth among top e-waste producing countries in the world after USA, China, Japan and Germany.

“The large increase (in total e-waste generation of the world) was mainly attributed to India,” said the report. An ASSOCHAM-KPMG study, Electronic Waste Management in India identified computer equipment account for almost 70 percent of e-waste, followed by telecommunication equipment-phones (12 percent), electrical equipment (8 percent) and medical equipment (7 per cent) with remaining from household e-waste.

Matters India spoke to some top experts in the field. Leading instrumentation and automation expert Vijay Anthwal explains, ‘’A consumer of an electric or electronic device is not apprised of the end of value chain of the product. No information is provided along with the product packing about the e-collection center for the product sold. The responsibility of the consumers is not specified along with the product. The deposit refund scheme (DRS) that aids the recycling of the product is not available in India.’’

Today, one of the biggest environmental problems caused by our endless hunger for the latest and smartest devices is a growing mineral crisis, particularly those needed to make our batteries. Yes, we are talking about Lithium Ion batteries that would now be used in abundance in the e-vehicles that are proposed to replace fossil fuel run automobiles and India is one of front runners gearing up to adopt e-vehicles in a big way.

“But, the environmental impact of finding all the lithium required to enable that transformation could become a serious issue in its own right. This ambitious plane could throw up challenges that would harm the environment if used batteries are not handled properly. The country does not have regulations on scrapping of electric vehicle batteries even as the automobile industry is moving towards the use of lithium-ion batteries instead of lead-acid batteries to offer quicker charging and higher range’’ adds Anthwal who heads his company, Tempflo System which also provides fuel cell test equipment.

A recent State government policy paper has warned of potential hazard resulting from the disposal of a large number of lithium ion batteries. Prepared by the Maharashtra government as part of the Maharashtra Urban Mobility Policy (MUMP), the paper warns of a ‘monster’ unleashed from the disposal of dead batteries if a comprehensive plan for collecting and disposing of the batteries is not in place.

“While the State has drafted a very progressive MUMP, the electrification of vehicles may actually unleash a monster of dead batteries in Maharashtra,” the paper, which will soon be released by Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis.

In a chat with Matters India another leading automation and instrumentation engineer B M Maheshwari says, ‘’The proper scrapping of batteries will not only alleviate possible environmental concerns but will also act as an enabler to locally source the chemical elements of the batteries such as lithium, nickel, manganese, cobalt, and titanium, thereby increasing the cost-effectiveness of the supply chain.’’

One lithium-ion battery has the potential to poison the whole water aquifer of Delhi and the use of an electric vehicle during floods can be dangerous, according to Roland Folger, managing director and chief executive officer, Mercedes Benz. ‘’Lithium is not a product to be dealt with lightly. It requires proper handling,’’ adds Maheshwari.

Anthwal gives us a quick comparison between the lead and LI versions of the battery that are being used in the EVs—lead-based batteries are the cheapest to produce, but the real cost of owning a lithium battery is far lower when you factor in performance and the battery’s better longevity.

When compared to modern alternatives, lead acid batteries are highly inefficient for both charge and discharge, meaning you’ll see a loss in amps while charging and a fast voltage drop during discharge that decreases the total capacity of your battery.

Lithium ion batteries nearly solve the efficiency issue. Since lead is pretty heavy lead-based batteries are typically more than three times the weight of their lithium counterparts. Lead-based batteries are the cheapest to produce, but the real cost of owning a lithium battery is far lower when you factor in performance and the battery’s better longevity.

But the question of effective recycling of LI batteries still looms large, once say the EV boom picks up. As per a new a survey conducted in Bengaluru, 87 percent of vehicle owners were ready to buy electric vehicles if that would help to reduce pollution. That would pose a huge recycling issue that need to be tackled at the policy level. Otherwise a lack of direction, as we have experienced in other sphere of tackling pollution issues in the country could create a ticking time bomb.

A recent white paper brought up Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers on electric vehicles suggested measures to incentivise recycling. The paper outlines that the minimum requirement of materials must be recycled and manufacturers should be encouraged to develop closed-loop mechanisms for batteries, thereby ensuring minimum scrappage.

As India aims to convert all new commercial vehicles to electric and forty per cent of new personal vehicles by pure electric vehicle penetration as of now remains quite low: 0.1 percent in passenger vehicles, 0.2 per cent in two-wheelers, and practically nil for commercial vehicles.

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1 thought on “E-vehicle batteries — future environmental hazard

  1. A very informative piece. Govts need to do macro planning instead of knee jerk reactions seeking immediate solutions. Battery retailers buy back old lead batteries. The same procedure should be laid down for LI batteries, and strictly enforced.

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