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The automotive sector produces more than 10 per cent of the world's industrial emissions. Carmakers racing to decarbonise and meet net-zero goals have focused on electrifying powertrains. But while electric cars produce less emissions than petrol or diesel models when driven, the production lines and parts used to make them are still significant polluters, especially the batteries.
Carmaker Volvo estimates that making one battery produces six to eight tonnes of CO2. They also require valuable metals that are energy-intensive to mine, such as lithium, nickel, and cobalt. And the average EV battery needs replacing every 10 years. With around 16mn electric cars already on the world's roads, according to the IEA, demands for new batteries and stockpiles of used ones will only increase.
Experts at the University of Warwick say more than 90 per cent of an EV battery can be recycled, including the valuable metals left inside, but accessing them is difficult and dangerous as the cells also contain liquid electrolyte that's flammable, explosive, and highly toxic. Researchers are working on faster, more efficient ways to strip EV batteries down to component parts. New electrochemical techniques are being developed to extract and purify valuable hard-to-recover metals, like lithium.
Another option is not to recycle immediately. Several carmakers are involved in experiments to extend the life of old EV batteries by using them to store energy for homes, industry, and even a football stadium, although it's unclear exactly how long they'll last in this way. Beyond the battery, carmakers face huge challenges to make their models more sustainable.
Modern cars typically contain between eight and 10,000 parts, according to the German manufacturer BMW. And some recycling techniques commonly used in other industries can't produce the quality required for carmaking. For example, even a trace of impurities, such as copper, in recycled aluminium will make it corrosive and unfit for automotive parts.
Some progress is being made. Ford is turning discarded fishing nets into plastic wire holders for its Bronco Sport SUV while the VW-owned Bentley brand has produced a luxury coupe using reclaimed timber for seating trims. And Polestar aims to make a carbon-free car dubbed the Polestar Zero by 2030 using renewable energy and reused or recycled components to build it.
Without improvements in sustainability, by 2040, 60 per cent of auto industry emissions will come from materials used in production, according to the McKinsey consultancy. Rolling out a circular car made of recovered materials is the ultimate goal, but achieving it won't be easy.