How Lithium Batteries Are Powering Our Planet as Sustainably as Possible

Posted November 17, 2023

With climate change on the rise and with lithium battery demand expected to grow by about 27 percent annually between now and 2030, it’s more important than ever that batteries be produced, used, and disposed of in a sustainable way. Consumers are also increasingly demanding this from battery manufacturers. Around 74 percent of U.S. consumers have stated they are concerned about the impact of the disposal or recycling of batteries at the end of their useful lives. Below we cover what makes a battery sustainable and how lithium batteries compare to lead acid batteries and generators when it comes to their impact on the environment. We also highlight the key sustainability differences between the most common types of lithium batteries.

What Makes a Battery More Environmentally Friendly?

There are several important factors to consider when voting with your dollars and deciding which battery is the least harmful to the environment. From materials to recycling, the battery’s entire lifecycle should be assessed, including:

Minerals and materials. Before the manufacturing process even begins, the minerals and other materials that are extracted for use in the battery have a strong impact on the battery’s sustainability ranking. For example, many batteries use toxic cobalt, which often ends up in landfills, and pollutes water and contaminates crops.

Pollutants during use. While some batteries require venting hazardous gasses and can result in dangerous spills, many batteries do not pose any such risks.

Lifespan: Battery manufacturers provide warranties to reassure customers of the minimum expected lifespan of the battery. Longer-lasting batteries require fewer replacements and therefore require fewer materials for any given project, resulting in significantly reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

Manufacturing and transportation-related emissions. The shorter the lifespan of the battery, the more frequently batteries will need to be produced and replaced, which causes unnecessary resource use and environmental harm.

Recyclability and reuse. One of the more commonly thought of sustainability factors, it’s important to know whether the battery you’re considering can be recycled or reused in other applications.

Lithium Batteries vs. Lead-Acid Batteries

Although both lithium batteries and lead-acid batteries are highly recyclable - over 90 percent recyclable, the main issue facing lead-acid batteries still remains the contamination from lead during the recycling and disposal process. This is because lead is toxic to the environment and is associated with losses in biodiversity as well as pollution of soil, water, and air. Also, over 3 million tons of lead-acid batteries are discarded each year. While some are safely recycled to recover lead and other materials, many end up in landfills, especially in developing countries, and toxins can cause explosions and fires, as well as poison water and food supplies for generations. Unlike lithium batteries, many lead-acid batteries also require venting hazardous gases like hydrogen.

When it comes to lifespan, a single lithium battery lasts, on average, 10 times longer than its lead-acid counterpart. Measured by cycle life, or how many times a battery can be discharged and then recharged before it needs to be replaced, lithium batteries offer a 3,500 cycle life when discharged up to 80 percent. VRLA and flooded lead-acid batteries, on the other hand, only offer around a 300 to 500-cycle life. Since lithium batteries last much longer than lead-acid batteries, they do not need to be replaced nearly as often and therefore minimize the amount of materials used.

Outlaw Portable Power Station In Outdoor Environment

Lithium Batteries vs. Fossil Fuel-Based Generators

Sometimes gas and diesel-powered generators are used in place of lithium batteries. However, when it comes to sustainability, generators pale in comparison to lithium batteries. Although generators can be recycled for scrap metal, the process is more challenging than that of recycling lithium batteries due to the fuel and oil within the generator. Unlike lithium batteries, generators are completely dependent on greenhouse gas-producing diesel and gasoline, significant contributors to climate change. These fuels are also limited resources and are not considered renewable.

Not All Lithium Batteries Are Created Equal

While lithium batteries are often lumped together in a single category, many do not know that there are significant differences between various types of lithium batteries in terms of their impact on the environment. Here are some of the more common lithium battery chemistry types available today:

  • Lithium Iron Phosphate (LFP or LiFePO4)
  • Lithium Nickel Manganese Cobalt Oxide (NMC)
  • Lithium Cobalt Oxide (LCO)
  • Lithium Nickel Cobalt Aluminum Oxide (NCA)
  • Lithium Manganese Oxide (LMO)

LiFePO4 batteries are the most environmentally benign lithium battery chemistry available on the market due in large part to the fact that they do not rely on scarce and highly toxic cobalt. This is one of the reasons why RELiON exclusively manufactures LiFePO4 batteries. The materials used in LiFePO4 batteries, like iron, are also abundant, unlike cobalt or manganese, which are much less renewable. LiFePO4 batteries also offer a superior chemical and mechanical structure that does not overheat to unsafe levels or cause thermal runaways and explosions like lithium cobalt-based batteries. Since they are inherently safer, LiFePO4 batteries therefore also do not require the additional materials associated with the cooling and heat mitigation equipment that is needed for lithium cobalt-based batteries. As a result, LiFePO4 batteries are associated with reduced manufacturing, transportation, and logistics, lowering greenhouse gas emissions in the process.

If you would like to learn more about the sustainability of lithium batteries, get in touch with an expert at RELiON today.