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The Environmental Impact of Lithium-ion Batteries – How Green Are They Really?

Lithium-ion technology has been sold as the safe and sustainable choice, but there is a very dark side to this would-be panacea.

Table of Contents

  1. What Are the Benefits of Using Lithium-ion Batteries?
  2. The Sustainability of Lithium-ion Technology: A Ways to Go
  3. How Can We Reduce the Environmental Impact of Lithium-ion Batteries?
  4. What Are the Alternatives to Lithium-ion Technology?
  5. Conclusion
  6. Lithium-ion Frequently Asked Questions

The lithium-ion battery was first proposed by university researchers in England in Japan in the 1980s, but did not become commercially available until introduced by Sony Corporation in 1991. There had been previous attempts at rechargeable batteries, but they were proprietary to each inventor. Lithium-ion became a standard design that offered higher energy density, longer life cycles, and lighter weight compared to previous rechargeable battery technologies.

In the 32 years since Sony introduced lithium-ion batteries, a technology revolution has taken place. Lithium-ion batteries have enabled everything from smart phones to cars, and the technology continues to advance with greater density, faster recharging, and longer lifespan.

In the enterprise, there are two major areas that have benefited from the lithium-ion battery revolution: mobile devices, such as laptops, tablets, and smart phones, have created the modern day mobile workforce that is no longer bound to their office. The other revolution has been in the data center.

In the data center, batteries have enabled the creation of the Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS): The UPS systems provide backup power in case of electrical grid failures. They are not normally intended to continue operations in the event of power loss, merely to allow people to save work, and shut down properly rather than have the computer simply blink off

However, like every technology, there is a catch. In the case of lithium-ion batteries, it is the environmental impact of both mining the lithium and disposal of dead lithium batteries. Lithium-ion batteries can only be drained and recharged so many times before they cease to hold a charge for any length of time. At that point, they must be replaced.

There is considerable and growing concern by both private industry and government entities over the environmental impact of lithium-ion battery production and especially the mining, particularly by countries rich with lithium deposits that are being heavily mined.

“To produce just one ton of lithium carbonate requires the evaporation of 500,000 gallons of lithium brine collected from underneath the salt flats of Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile, where a major portion of lithium is produced,” notes Irina Tsukerman, geopolitical analyst and president of Scarab Rising, a risk assessment firm.

She also notes the batteries themselves contain metals such as cobalt, nickel, and manganese, which are toxic and can contaminate water supplies and ecosystems around the mine. Additionally, fires in landfills or battery-recycling facilities have been attributed to inappropriate disposal of lithium-ion batteries.

What Are the Benefits of Using Lithium-ion Batteries?

There are many benefits to lithium-ion batteries, hence their popularity. “Their longer lifespan compared to traditional batteries reduces the frequency of replacement, indirectly contributing to waste reduction. Furthermore, they're instrumental in our transition towards renewable energy, as they store excess energy produced by wind and solar power, ensuring a steady supply even during periods of low energy production,” said Kimberly Kim, a geologist, certified safety professional, and environmental consultant.

The benefits include:

High Energy Density: Lithium-ion batteries have a higher energy density compared to other rechargeable battery technologies. This is especially advantageous in smaller devices where size and weight are an issue. Lithium-ion batteries are known for being lightweight.

Longer Cycle Life: Lithium-ion batteries typically have a longer cycle life than their competitors. Some laptops are now claiming 24 hour battery life.

Low Self-Discharge Rate & Faster Recharge: Lithium-ion batteries have a lower self-discharge rate than other forms of rechargeable batteries, which means they bleed off power slower than other battery technologies. So it holds a charge longer. They also recharge faster than other battery technologies.

No Memory Effect: Some batteries suffer from what is called the memory effect, where the lifecycle is reduced when the battery is repeatedly recharged before being fully depleted. Lithium-ion batteries do not suffer from this effect.

Shape Versatility: Lithium-ion batteries can be designed in various shapes and sizes, not just the square or rectangular shape of other batteries. This allows them to be used in a wide range of devices.

Lower Environmental Impact: Compared to some other rechargeable battery technologies, lithium-ion batteries have a lower environmental impact. They do not contain toxic heavy metals like lead or cadmium although they do have some toxic chemicals, and are easier to recycle than their counterparts.

The Sustainability of Lithium-ion Technology: A Ways to Go

Mining & Production

Lithium may be the third most common element on earth, after hydrogen and helium, but is not easily mined. It’s a messy process done by pumping water into the reserves in a manner similar to fracking used in oil drilling. It requires a considerable amount of fresh water -- salt water cannot be used -- and many of the mines are in areas suffering from drought. It leaves behind a toxic stew of waste that takes centuries for nature to clear up.

The mining process involves pumping water into the shale and extracting a slurry, which has to be left out exposed to be evaporated. The process can take anywhere from 10 to 24 months to extract the lithium fully.

Disposal & Recycling

In general, the life span of a lithium-ion battery is 3 to 10 years depending on the number of recharge cycles. It is estimated that between 200 million and 500 million tons of spent battery wastes are generated annually by 2020. Since they contain toxic metals like cobalt, dumping them in the landfill is not an option. Plus, these batteries have valuable metals, so there is also a financial incentive to recycle them.

Steven Athwal, managing director of The Big Phone Store, a UK mobile refurbishment brand, said the real issue of recycling batteries is how cheaply it can be done. “Currently, buying recycled lithium is much more expensive than mining it straight from the ground. That needs to change,” he said. “By scaling up our current battery recycling, those costs will go down. We need that to happen much faster than it is.”

How Can We Reduce the Environmental Impact of Lithium-ion Batteries?

“Considering the environmental concerns associated with lithium extraction, the energy-intensive production process, and the challenges in recycling, there's a clear need for improvements in current practices and innovations in battery technology to ensure true sustainability,” said Kim.

Battery recycling: the most obvious and easy choice. No lithium-ion battery should ever go to a landfill. It should go to a reputable recycling company, one that is heavily audited for environmental compliance and not using child labor as is often the case in some countries.

Improved sourcing: The current method of mining is antiquated, dangerous, polluting, and time-consuming. It is ripe for innovation and improvement to have less environmental impact when removing lithium from the ground.

Improved battery design: this goes without saying, as R&D in battery life has been going on since it was invented. But the needs to be continued investment in creating batteries with longer lifespans, higher energy density, and faster charging capabilities..

Material substitution: While lithium-ion batteries are the best option at the moment, alternatives can always come to the market. One alternative design uses sodium instead of lithium but it is in the very early stages (see below). More environmentally friendly alternatives need to be explored.

Public awareness and education: businesses tend to be more environmentally conscious about recycling dead and exhausted lithium-ion batteries than consumers. It needs to be more consumer awareness about the importance of recycling dead batteries and not just throwing them in the trash.

What Are the Alternatives to Lithium-ion Technology?

There are a number of alternatives battery technologies available and on the market, and some even have strengths over lithium-ion technology. But none has the whole package of features and strengths to match lithium-ion.

Lead-Acid: Lead-acid batteries are one of the oldest and most mature rechargeable battery technologies primarily used in UPS and backup power systems. They are low-cost but have a lower energy density and shorter lifespan compared to lithium-ion batteries.

Nickel-Cadmium (NiCd): These are primarily used in portable electronics and power tools. They offer good performance and have a longer lifespan compared to lead-acid batteries, but they contain toxic cadmium and have a lower energy density compared to lithium-ion batteries.

Nickel-Metal Hydride (NiMH): Popular in applications such as digital cameras, hybrid vehicles, and portable electronics, NiMH batteries have a lower energy density and shorter lifespan than lithium-ion batteries.

Sodium-Ion: Sodium-ion batteries are an alternative to lithium-ion batteries because sodium is more abundant and less expensive than lithium. However, sodium-ion batteries are an emerging technology still under development.


With many states setting the ambitious goal of ending fossil fuel powered vehicles in the coming years, battery power will be more important than ever. That means vastly increased production, and some sources may not be reliable. Chile and Mexico have both nationalized their vast lithium deposits, so supply could be cut off a political whim.

Perhaps the greatest challenge will be to address the conditions under which lithium is mined. There have been repeated exposes on the horrible conditions in which children often labor and it is met with indifference. The public that’s clamoring for electric vehicles should also be clamoring for their batteries to be produced safely and cleanly.


What are the materials used in lithium-ion batteries?

A lithium-ion battery is made up of: a cathode, which contains lithium cobalt oxide, lithium nickel manganese cobalt oxide, or lithium iron phosphate; an anode made of graphite; electrolytes with lithium salt; a separator membrane made of microporous polyethylene or polypropylene; current collectors made of copper and aluminum foil; and binders and additives made of polyvinylidene fluoride.

How are lithium-ion batteries recycled?

Battery recycling is a many-step process of sorting and disassembly, crushing or shredding the battery, immersion in a liquid solution to dissolve and extract the active materials, recovery and purification of the individual elements, removing of impurities, and remanufacturing.

What are the hazards of lithium-ion battery production?

Excluding the mining hazards already discussed, there are numerous risks, all related to the toxicity of the chemicals used in making a lithium-ion battery. The manufacturing process involves the use of several hazardous chemicals and materials which are both toxic and flammable. The batteries contain flammable electrolytes and highly reactive materials, making them prone to explosion. There also prone to electrical discharges and accidents since they are storing electricity.

What is the carbon footprint of lithium-ion batteries?

The exact carbon footprint is very hard to measure due to the fact that lithium-ion battery production involves many variables, not the least of which is the size of the battery. But there are also issues around mining techniques, the specific battery chemistry, production processes, energy sources used, and the lifecycle of the battery.

What are the potential risks of lithium-ion battery disposal?

Just tossing out an old battery and letting it go to a landfill allows for potential contamination especially when the battery is cracked or damaged in the chemicals can leak out. Batteries sent to a landfill can contaminate soil, water, and air, posing risks to ecosystems and potentially entering the food chain.

They also represent a fire and explosion hazard, as lithium-ion batteries have been prone to explosion in the past. Damaged or short-circuited batteries can release heat and ignite, leading to fires.

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