How Clean is the Nickel and Lithium in a Battery?
The production of lithium (Li) and nickel (Ni), two key raw materials for batteries, can produce vastly different emissions profiles.
This graphic from Wood Mackenzie shows how nickel and lithium mining can significantly impact the environment, depending on the processes used for extraction.
Nickel Emissions Per Extraction Process
Nickel is a crucial metal in modern infrastructure and technology, with major uses in stainless steel and alloys. Nickel’s electrical conductivity also makes it ideal for facilitating current flow within battery cells.
Today, there are two major methods of nickel mining:
From laterite deposits, which are predominantly found in tropical regions. This involves open-pit mining, where large amounts of soil and overburden need to be removed to access the nickel-rich ore.
From sulphide ores, which involves underground or open-pit mining of ore deposits containing nickel sulphide minerals.
Compared to laterite extraction, sulphide mining typically emits fewer tonnes of CO2 per tonne of nickel equivalent as it involves less soil disturbance and has a smaller physical footprint:
|Ore Type||Process||Product||Tonnes of CO2 per tonne of Ni equivalent|
|Sulphides||Electric / Flash Smelting||Refined Ni / Matte||6|
|Laterite||High Pressure Acid Leach (HPAL)||Refined Ni / Mixed Sulpide Precipitate / Mixed Hydroxide Precipitate||13.7|
|Laterite||Blast Furnace / RKEF||Nickel Pig Iron / Matte||45.1|
Nickel extraction from laterites can impose significant environmental impacts, such as deforestation, habitat destruction, and soil erosion.
Additionally, laterite ores often contain high levels of moisture, requiring energy-intensive drying processes to prepare them for further extraction. After extraction, the smelting of laterites requires a significant amount of energy, which is largely sourced from fossil fuels.
Although sulphide mining is cleaner, it poses other environmental challenges. The extraction and processing of sulphide ores can release sulphur compounds and heavy metals into the environment, potentially leading to acid mine drainage and contamination of water sources if not managed properly.
In addition, nickel sulphides are typically more expensive to mine due to their hard rock nature.
Lithium Emissions Per Extraction Process
Lithium is the major ingredient in rechargeable batteries found in phones, hybrid cars, electric bikes, and grid-scale storage systems.
Today, there are two major methods of lithium extraction:
From brine, pumping lithium-rich brine from underground aquifers into evaporation ponds, where solar energy evaporates the water and concentrates the lithium content. The concentrated brine is then further processed to extract lithium carbonate or hydroxide.
Hard rock mining, or extracting lithium from mineral ores (primarily spodumene) found in pegmatite deposits. Australia, the world’s leading producer of lithium (46.9%), extracts lithium directly from hard rock.
Brine extraction is typically employed in countries with salt flats, such as Chile, Argentina, and China. It is generally considered a lower-cost method, but it can have environmental impacts such as water usage, potential contamination of local water sources, and alteration of ecosystems.
The process, however, emits fewer tonnes of CO2 per tonne of lithium-carbonate-equivalent (LCE) than mining:
|Source||Ore Type||Process||Tonnes of CO2
per tonne of LCE
|Mineral||Petalite, lepidolite and others||Mine||8|
Mining involves drilling, blasting, and crushing the ore, followed by flotation to separate lithium-bearing minerals from other minerals. This type of extraction can have environmental impacts such as land disturbance, energy consumption, and the generation of waste rock and tailings.
Sustainable Production of Lithium and Nickel
Environmentally responsible practices in the extraction and processing of nickel and lithium are essential to ensure the sustainability of the battery supply chain.
This includes implementing stringent environmental regulations, promoting energy efficiency, reducing water consumption, and exploring cleaner technologies. Continued research and development efforts focused on improving extraction methods and minimizing environmental impacts are crucial.
Sign up to Wood Mackenzie’s Inside Track to learn more about the impact of an accelerated energy transition on mining and metals.
Life Cycle Emissions: EVs vs. Combustion Engine Vehicles
We look at carbon emissions of electric, hybrid, and combustion engine vehicles through an analysis of their life cycle emissions.
Life Cycle Emissions: EVs vs. Combustion Engine Vehicles
According to the International Energy Agency, the transportation sector is more reliant on fossil fuels than any other sector in the economy. In 2021, it accounted for 37% of all CO2 emissions from end‐use sectors.
To gain insights into how different vehicle types contribute to these emissions, the above graphic visualizes the life cycle emissions of battery electric, hybrid, and internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles using Polestar and Rivian’s Pathway Report.
Production to Disposal: Emissions at Each Stage
Life cycle emissions are the total amount of greenhouse gases emitted throughout a product’s existence, including its production, use, and disposal.
To compare these emissions effectively, a standardized unit called metric tons of CO2 equivalent (tCO2e) is used, which accounts for different types of greenhouse gases and their global warming potential.
Here is an overview of the 2021 life cycle emissions of medium-sized electric, hybrid and ICE vehicles in each stage of their life cycles, using tCO2e. These numbers consider a use phase of 16 years and a distance of 240,000 km.
|Battery electric vehicle||Hybrid electric vehicle||Internal combustion engine vehicle|
|Production emissions (tCO2e)||Battery manufacturing||5||1||0|
|Use phase emissions (tCO2e)||Fuel/electricity production||26||12||13|
|Post consumer emissions (tCO2e)||End-of-life||-2||-1||-1|
|TOTAL||39 tCO2e||47 tCO2e||55 tCO2e|
While it may not be surprising that battery electric vehicles (BEVs) have the lowest life cycle emissions of the three vehicle segments, we can also take some other insights from the data that may not be as obvious at first.
- The production emissions for BEVs are approximately 40% higher than those of hybrid and ICE vehicles. According to a McKinsey & Company study, this high emission intensity can be attributed to the extraction and refining of raw materials like lithium, cobalt, and nickel that are needed for batteries, as well as the energy-intensive manufacturing process of BEVs.
- Electricity production is by far the most emission-intensive stage in a BEVs life cycle. Decarbonizing the electricity sector by implementing renewable and nuclear energy sources can significantly reduce these vehicles’ use phase emissions.
- By recycling materials and components in their end-of-life stages, all vehicle segments can offset a portion of their earlier life cycle emissions.
Accelerating the Transition to Electric Mobility
As we move toward a carbon-neutral economy, battery electric vehicles can play an important role in reducing global CO2 emissions.
Despite their lack of tailpipe emissions, however, it’s good to note that many stages of a BEV’s life cycle are still quite emission-intensive, specifically when it comes to manufacturing and electricity production.
Advancing the sustainability of battery production and fostering the adoption of clean energy sources can, therefore, aid in lowering the emissions of BEVs even further, leading to increased environmental stewardship in the transportation sector.
Visualizing the World’s Largest Lithium Producers
Australia and Chile stand out as the largest producers of lithium, accounting for almost 77% of global supply.
Visualizing the World’s Largest Lithium Producers in 2022
Lithium has become essential in recent years, primarily due to the boom in electric vehicles and other clean technologies that rely on lithium batteries.
The global lithium-ion battery market was valued at $52 billion in 2022 and is expected to reach $194 billion in 2030.
The infographic above uses data from the United States Geological Survey to explore the world’s largest lithium producing countries.
Australia and Chile: Dominating Global Lithium Supply
Australia and Chile stand out as the top producers of lithium, accounting for almost 77% of the global production in 2022.
|Rank||Country||Mine production 2022E (tonnes)||Share (%)|
|🌎 Other countries*||700||0.5%|
|🌐 World Total||130,000||100.0%|
*U.S. production data was withheld to avoid disclosing proprietary company data
Australia, the world’s leading producer, extracts lithium directly from hard rock mines, specifically the mineral spodumene.
Chile, along with Argentina, China, and other top producers, extracts lithium from brine.
Hard rock provides greater flexibility as lithium hosted in spodumene can be processed into either lithium hydroxide or lithium carbonate. It also offers faster processing and higher quality as spodumene typically contains higher lithium content.
Extracting lithium from brine, on the other hand, offers the advantage of lower production costs and a smaller impact on the environment. The following visual from Benchmark Minerals helps break down the carbon impact of different types of lithium extraction.
With that said, brine extraction can also face challenges related to water availability and environmental impacts on local ecosystems.
Historical Shifts in the Lithium Supply Chain
In the 1990s, the United States held the title of the largest lithium producer, producing over one-third of the global production in 1995.
However, Chile eventually overtook the U.S., experiencing a production boom in the Salar de Atacama, one of the world’s richest lithium brine deposits. Since then, Australia’s lithium production has also skyrocketed, now accounting for 47% of the world’s lithium production.
China, the world’s third-largest producer, not only focuses on developing domestic mines but has also strategically acquired approximately $5.6 billion worth of lithium assets in countries like Chile, Canada, and Australia over the past decade.
Furthermore, China currently hosts nearly 60% of the world’s lithium refining capacity for batteries, underlining its dominant position in the lithium supply chain.
Meeting Lithium Demand: The Need for New Production
As the world increases its production of batteries and electric vehicles, the demand for lithium is projected to soar.
In 2021, global lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE) production sat at 540,000 tonnes.
By 2025, demand is expected to reach 1.5 million tonnes of LCE. By 2030, this number is estimated to exceed 3 million tonnes.
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