An Inconvenient truth: Electric-car battery materials could harm key soil bacteria



The growing popularity of battery-powered cars could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but they are not entirely Earth friendly. Problems can creep in when these batteries are disposed of. Scientists, in a new study in ACS’ journal Chemistry of Materials, are reporting that compounds increasingly used in lithium-ion batteries are toxic to a type of soil-dwelling bacteria that plays an important environmental role.

An estimated 20 million electric vehicles are expected to be on the road by 2020, according to an International Energy Agency report. Each one of these will likely contain more than 83 pounds of nanoscale cathode materials, potentially including a class of compounds called lithium nickel manganese cobalt oxides (NMCs). These high-performing, low-cost compounds could soon become the material of choice for large-scale production of electric car batteries. But little is known about their toxicity. To find out more, Robert J. Hamers, Christy L. Haynes and colleagues studied the effects of NMC on a common, environmentally significant bacteria.

The researchers, led by graduate students Mimi Hang and Ian Gunsolus, found that one type of NMC partially dissolves in watery conditions similar to what might be found in a landfill, and releases lithium, nickel and cobalt ions. Nickel and cobalt ions dramatically slowed the growth of Shewanella oneidensis MR-1, a bacteria that helps cycle metals in the environment. Based on their findings, the researchers suggest new efforts should be undertaken to design NMC materials that minimize release of toxic ions while maintaining their superior lithium intercalation properties.


85 thoughts on “An Inconvenient truth: Electric-car battery materials could harm key soil bacteria

  1. If pseudo-environmentalists are already sacrificing multicellular birds and bats on the altar of Green Power, then why not soil microbes?

      • Oh, come on, really? Here in California, if you buy an electric car, all your electricity is charged at tier 1 rates. I’ve considered buying an electric car just for that reason. Let it sit in the garage – who cares? I save big bucks!

      • Really! I wouldn’t touch one with a barge pole. I need reliability, something that will carry me further than a handful of miles. Something I can trust to get me home again and something I don’t have to wait hours to charge should I need it NOW in an emergency.
        Further, I don’t trust their figures – greens always exaggerate the benefits and shrink the liabilities. They lie about the costs, they lie about what their schemes can do, they lie about the downside, they lie about how long their ‘product’ will last, they lie about sustainability.
        Someone threatened to buy me an electric car (as a joke). I told him I’d set fire to it. I meant it. An acceptable alternative to setting fire to it would be to put it through a crusher and send it back to him. Either option works.

      • My view of green is definitely jaded, Rob, I’ll grant you that. I’m fed up with their lies on every level. I have zero interest in their ideals and much less in their products. By the way, I’ve lived off-grid – no on-line electricity, no water, no sewage system, no house! Hard work but I loved the independence. My worldview is far from rigid.
        As for any electric car – what do you do when you’ve come home, plugged in your vehicle, then realize you forgot to buy the milk, but the shops are too far away to walk it? Or a relative or friend phones you and needs your help immediately and they live across town? Do you decide to wait until the car is charged? Do you wait for a bus (diesel) or call a cab (petrol)?
        I take you own an electric car and have no other “spare” vehicle for emergencies, right?

      • @ A.D. Everard

        I’ve lived off-grid – no on-line electricity, no water, no sewage system, no house! Hard work but I loved the independence. My worldview is far from rigid.

        Apologies–I did not mean to offend. I agree that there are masses of “green” companies jumping on the bandwagon… but you can’t let them ruin it for the true pioneers out there.
        Long-term, all transportation will have to go electric. Cities cannot continue to get choked up with exhaust fumes.
        I currently own a conventional ICE vehicle but the moment cost parity is reached, I’ll be jumping ship.
        A 200 mile range EV that’s “topped-up” every night should present no issues in the emergency situation you presented. Most people drive less than 40 miles a day. And Tesla’s 120 kW superchargers are able to recharge from 0 to 80% in 20 minutes.

      • Hi Rob, no offense taken. 🙂 I’m rather partial to a hydrogen car – if they can iron out the problems currently with it. I like that idea because a hydrogen car runs as a regular car does now complete with decent speeds and distance, plus size and no waiting time for recharge. Alternatives to fuel are interesting, but they need to work well.
        I live in the country, two hours from the nearest big town (over 90 miles one way) and a whole day from a city. Out in the country a car is literally your lifeline. So you and I are working from different platforms. If your car does the job and you are happy with it, that’s all that’s important. I’m glad you have it and wish you luck with your future jump.

  2. ‘The growing popularity of battery-powered cars’
    Not really.
    ‘An estimated 20 million electric vehicles are expected to be on the road by 2020’
    Sure they will.

      • I think it was Top Gear TV program that did a program on the Electric car, they found so many faults that they redesigned the car. The most important add-on was a 1 km extension cable, as while they were testing the car it never reached its published limits, and they were always knocking on somebodies door to get a recharge.

        • MarkW

          What kind of voltage levels do you have at the end of a 1km power cord?

          With no current flowing, the voltage at the end of a 1 km power cord IS the same as the voltage at the start of the cord.
          (A garden hose 1 km long is the same: No flow and you get maximum pressure at each end. Open the valve, and you get flow, but very, very little flow since the resistance is so high.)
          But, as soon as amps begin flowing, resistance losses quickly add up and you get no usable “energy” (volts x amps) at the end.

    • Note this on
      ‘Last year, sales fell 6% over the previous year to about 115,000, despite the industry offering about 30 plug-in models, often at deep discounts.”
      I think it can be fairly stated that “the growing popularity of battery-powered cars” is a lie. The ACS is lying. It is an easily checked lie. Did they think that no one would check? Do they think that lying doesn’t matter, as long as it is for their cause? How far the American Chemical Society has fallen.

      • See above. I’m no greenie, but i save so much money because my entire electricity bill nosedives because it is all billed at tier 1 rates in Kalifornia if you have an electric car. I don’t want to waste money on a new one, but dead battery used one may be well worth the money – especially if you’re heating your pool and Jacuzzi electrically. Did I forget to mention how many KWH it takes to cool a big house in So Cal? They are very popular here – in no small part for that reason. Don’t even add in that a lot of places allow you to recharge for free at their sites.
        They may perform like a POS, but sometimes I don’t need my SRT. Well, not very often. I like the sound and feel of a muscle V8 tuned for power. Haven’t been able to get excited about driving a Prissy, although they do go downhill pretty fast – over 80 mph. I notice that when I slow down to see how fast they’re going.

        • Kalifornia Kook commented : “…..but i save so much money because my entire electricity bill nosedives because it is all billed at tier 1 rates in Kalifornia if you have an electric car……They may perform like a POS, but sometimes I don’t need my SRT. …”
          The tier 1 rate you refer to must be a NoCal thing. Not offered in SoCal that I could find. A four door Tesla S will outperform your SRT 0-60 and is rated at 10.9 seconds in the 1/4. No commercial automobile ICE engine can match the torque band of an electric motor.

      • @Kalifornia Kook

        They may perform like a POS, but sometimes I don’t need my SRT.

        “Tesla Model S P90D Ludicrous runs 11.2 @ 118.4 MPH Drag Racing 1/4 Mile”

  3. lithium and the other metals ain’t that cheap
    Recycle em for sure. Another learned treatise based on silly assumptions

    • I have been keeping my eye on that and think it’s a great idea. However, there are still problems with it.
      First and foremost, it’s no where near marketable. It currently costs on the order of $2m (or $1.7m as per your reference article) per vehicle. This is still research-stage technology with the company popularizing it for investment purposes – mainly because they want to start field testing the cars, which means they need to put a couple dozen out there and $2m per each is probably a lot more R&D than they can handle alone.
      The second problem (at least for me) is the same as a battery driven car: infrastructure. Where in the heck are you going to find 105 Gallons of properly mixed salt water after you travel 600 miles? Granted, you can always find US Morton and distilled water in any grocery store, but mixing 105 gallons in a parking lot seems…..painful (although, it’s generally better infrastructure than electric charging stations, even though those are painful also).
      Related questions are more about intended usage: “How do you ‘top off’ when you’ve tooled around for 400 miles and returned home?” “How does this handle weather extremes? Saltwater freezes at about -2C, so obviously you can’t drive this in Canada or Norway during the winter, but does the energy reduce or increase as the saltwater scales in temperature up and down? How does the on-board equipment manage this energy delta?” And other such fun questions I’m still looking for answers to.
      Otherwise, I would love to play around with this car.
      (Does anyone else think that it’s a modernized Delorean? Does it come with an optional Mr Fusion?)

      • Arsten commented: “….Where in the heck are you going to find 105 Gallons of properly mixed salt water after you travel 600 miles?…”
        It’s a car designed for coastal use. Once the saltwater acidity is depleted you return it to the ocean and pick up a fresh charge. Best of all it’s “sustainable” and “free” and at $1M each there should be no problem with the government buying one for everyone living close to the ocean by taxing all the farmers inland. Nice looking car though.

    • The quote you cite is talking about the current situation. The previous sentence is as follows:

      Recycling specialists say that as volume grows, it will become more economically feasible to recover some of the content now wasted that way.

      Anyway, we shouldn’t assume that lithium will be the dominant battery technology ten or twenty years from now. Li-ion will bottom out on cost reductions and other technologies will likely supplant it. link

      • Did you notice that the article also explained that one recycling facility had received a federal gift of $10 million to expand it’s battery recycling activities?
        Even I could make lithium battery recycling profitable if the state gave me massive heaps of free cash.
        As for the future of this technology, it’s anybody’s guess. The world is full of hype and promises.

      • Hell yeah, It might help me to cope with anxiety of watching the takeover of my country by eco-nazis!!!
        Pass the lithium. I need to blank all of this from my mind.
        Then again, the odd drink and some good company is usually a better option than psychiatric intervention.
        As the saying goes – I’d rather have a bottle in front of me, than a frontal lobotomy. 🙂

  4. Goes right along with the unintended consequences of using CFS light bulbs.
    Why do we continue to listen to these people.

  5. If you completely discharge a battery, in salt water, for example, what is left?
    very small amounts of cathode or anode.
    So I say put the battery material back from where they came… the earth.

  6. Batteries bad for the environment? Who knew?
    There are no good engineering reasons for EVs. You have to cherry pick a lot of data to show EVs reduce ghg. Maybe in France because nukes load follow part of the time.
    Second air pollution is a thing of the past in North America. We cleaned up cities without EVs.
    I am waiting for the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to declare victory and revoke some of the dumber regulations. For example, I can not get a carburetor rebuild kit for my RV generator. New ones are available that meet CARB at only $300.
    I suspect many car purchases are not based on practical evaluation. This goes double in California. How many jacked up 4wd do you see on the freeways that will never see snow. Not that the fools would what to do if it did snow. So EVs are just a status symbol of the pious. On course this would leave out EV rusting away in Bubba’s cotton field.

    • Retired Kit P commented: “…There are no good engineering reasons for EVs….”
      I disagree. EVs are excellent in their niche….short distances. From a driving perspective they are quieter, smoother, less expensive per mile to operate, require less maintenance, and more responsive than equivalent ICE automobiles. I do agree that they offer no advantage to reducing pollution though and that’s what they are being touted for.

    • Yeah, like why I am rebuilding the carb on my 1985 Quad. Heck, it still works and with a bit of machining and epoxy, good as new. Well nearly. It’s only 30 years old. Young. And my 1975 Jeep Cherokee with a V8 engine is still fun to start up and listen to the throaty roar of the engine.
      Nothing against electrics. They work well in mines, dleivery and industrial applications along with short commutes. But for those of us miles from anywhere, it will be a while before the IC engine is gone.
      Anyone seen an electric tractor yet?

      • You’re not up on the latest technology!
        I don’t remember what blog I was on, but a Don B posted the following:
        “There is an important, future source of electricity for powering electric cars – trailers hauling gasoline powered electric generators!
        If only someone would figure out how to put a gasoline engine in an automobile, those trailers could be eliminated.”
        I nearly fell out of my office chair laughing so hard. We definitely are making progress with our modern EV technology.

      • Didn’t ever see an electric tractor but probably around the early 1970’s there was a fair bit of publicity in the Agricultural mags on a New Zealand electric tractor [ I think NZ but possibly originating in the UK ] that dragged a power cable mounted on a pole in the centre of the field, around and around to power the whole thing while it worked a [ pea sized ? ] field.
        For some entirely unknown reasons the idea failed to take off, probably because the idea of dragging kilometre plus long high voltage cable around a 1000 acre [ 400 Ha’s ] field strategically equipped with a few old tree stumps didn’t turn any Australian farmers on despite the then cheapness of the fuel source.
        Around 1960, various American tractor manufacturers were also advertising gas powered as in propane powered tractors equipped with an oversize pressure tank for the gas.

      • Wayne D
        There is a company in Agincourt Ontario (near Toronto) that has been promoting an electric tractor. I do not know where the projects stands at the moment. It was a small company that I contacted maybe 5 years ago about another technology they considered making for me. I was surprised at the time and still am. It is the only mention I have heard of a serious effort to farm with on-board electricity.

  7. Well, not so clear. I speak as a holder of 13 US patents, four on energy storage, and an enthusiastic MY 2007 Ford hybrid Escape owner (well ok, the US tax subsidy alone repaid the car premium in less than 12 months…I was taught at HBS to never pass up a good deal).
    So, to this post. 1. The cathode alloy cited is one of just three basic types. For example, NOT the cathode alloy in the Chevy Volt. 2. The materials in these batteries are recycled. Way too valuable to dump, except through negligence. 3. Picking one soil bacterium species out of tens of thousands smacks of cherry picking. I did not bother to do that research.

      • Don’t feel too sorry, Marcus. They are cunning little beasts – they will find a way round that problem. Shewanella Oneidensis MR-1 may be slowing up the process for a while. But they will get there in the end. They have plenty of time on their little hands. Leave it to Gaia.

    • Why should you get a subsidy? Of course the 5 passenger Corolla gets the same millage and cost half as much. From Edmonds:
      “With an extra 300 pounds of curb weight compared to a regular Escape, the Hybrid model exhibits considerable body roll around turns and generally feels less agile than most small SUVs”
      Adding heavy batteries to make a hybrid get mileage is theory that has never been backed up by independent testing. This is why I do not own one.

      • ‘Adding heavy batteries to make a hybrid get mileage is theory that has never been backed up by independent testing.’
        The Toyota Prius is tested every day by thousands of independent owners. And it delivers. So what are you talking about?

      • I drove 600 miles on 15 gallons of gasoline in Minnesota in a Ford Fusion hybrid with excellent performance. It has only a few minutes of battery power but that works perfectly for city driving. Out west with mountains it is unlikely to work very well. Then there’s the problem of cold.

      • My wife’s Sentra regularly breaks 40mpg on the highway, one time I got it up to 50mpg. You just have to have a light foot on the gas.

      • I remember reading that little story about Denmark getting half their electricity from windmills……folllowed up on it, and it was just for 1 day, and on that one day, only a very small percentage was used in Denmark, the rest was exported at below cost to protect the grid. You gotta do a least a little follow up when you read stories like this. Very easy to google and square away to the facts. Intermittancy is a very real problem, solved by very expensive storage anf infrastructure rebuild……not coming soon.

        • Maybe you need to ‘Google’ Denmark’s wind power site. In 2015 they produced 56% of the electricity used in Denmark but used 50% of it. But at what price in energy cost and self reliance? If every country relied on other countries to fill in their blank energy times…..well, just like checks you can’t ‘kite’ energy.

      • trafamadore commented: “…Except that Denmark got almost half of its elect from wind last year…”
        And still must rely on other countries to provide all of its’ electricity and has the highest cost of electricity in the world. Being latitude challenged for solar means what you see is what you get after 30 years experience with wind.

      • Denmark is the one country in the world which just MIGHT profit from wind power : in West Jutland you need no compass. Just look at the trees : they all lean from west to east. And you cannot grow an ordinary garden without a windbreak on your west side.

    • Danes, the last I heard, were paying almost 40¢ per KWH for electricity forcing tens of thousands of households (Denmark’s population is about 5.5 million) into energy poverty defined as using 10% or more of their net income for electricity.

  8. Never seems to be any talk about the actual mining process and the conversion of the mined materials into batteries. That always is ,like, really “green”.

  9. The point is that we need to avoid propagandistic snapshots and do a full life cycle analysis from recovery to reclamation in order to characterize a technology in context, determines its suitability to purpose, and assess its value on multiple fronts.

  10. Another issue is the Rare Earths (The Lathanides – 15 elements) used in electric car batteries as well as wind turbines. The Toyota Prius for example uses 1kg. (2.2 lbs.) of Neodymium (Neodymium-iron-boron magnets) and 10kg. (22 lbs.) of Lanthanum. These are the same magnets that are used in wind turbines. The significance is that 95% to 100% of all Rare Earths are mined in China and it has been identified as one of the worst ongoing environmental disasters in the world. Not surprising given that China generates 80-85% of its electricity using some 2,000 unscrubbed coal-fired generating plants and has 18 of the world’s top 25 most air-polluted cities. China is cutting its exports of some of these materials and has also raised export taxes. It is encouraging western companies that need a steady supply of Lathanides to move their production facilities to China – why not, millions of western manufacturing jobs have already gone there. China has also forbidden foreign companies from investing in Its Rare Earth mining. It is also cutting exports of other key elements, including Tungsten, Antimony and Indium.

  11. skeohane
    February 10, 2016 at 3:39 pm
    Sudbury, Ontario where they mine the nickel for batteries: [photo of devastation]
    Fifty year old photo. Its now a miracle forest!! The US astronaut stuff is urban myth. It was sulphur what done it, not nickel – Ni was recovered which was the operations point. Green eco should match their outdated promotional stuff, like the above with photos of today. It would be even a stronger message that sustainability you jokers are carping about is actually achievable. Otherwise your gloom and doom tends to turn people off. You guys, especially today after the dishonest global warming, civilization threatening propaganda, have got a lot of rehabilitation of yourselves to do. I’ve seen desperate armies of young unsuspecting students out on the streets in numbers I haven’t seen before trying to scrape up scarcer funds for Greenpeace and other corrupted organizations. I explain why they need to starve nearly to death and then remake themselves into respectable organizations if it can be done. I tell these young people, you are students – study the issues from all sides -don’t unwittingly sell your soul and your future to the devil.
    Re the battery article, these guys are also out of date on the chemistry and wrong about the value of recycling lithium. Li-Fe-Phosphate is the cathode that has come to the top of the heap – Tesla and others’ mega plants will be turning out these types of Li-ion batteries. Not only is this “chemical” recyclable and environmentally friendly [How it works: when you charge the battery, the Li ion is released from the iron-phospate structure; when you discharge the battery, it returns to the iron-phosphate structure – recycler’s dream] but LiFePO4 also occurs naturally as the mineral Triphyllite. Lithium hydroxide monohydrate feedstock that goes into their manufacture has in this recession risen ~$US 10,000/t – it is easy and profitable to recover!

  12. Of course the solution for those who want electric cars but not the batteries is to resurrect all those overhead lines the trolley cars used. The system would need to be expanded so the lines would run into everybody’s garages.
    Pigeons would be all for it.

  13. “The Toyota Prius is tested every day by thousands of independent owners. And it delivers. So what are you talking about?”
    That is why I call it the Toyota Pious. People buy products that claim to be ‘green’ to feel good about themselves. EV and solar panel owner are guilty of confirmational bias.
    Road and Track did an article of ‘green’ cars. They took cars on a road trip with professional drivers trying to achieve the best mileage. The VW TDI diesel out performed the Pious by a wide margin. The Pious did much worse that EPA rating while the VW did better.
    The reason to not spend more to save the planet, is the planet does not need saving. I am always skeptical when I am urged to take more money out of my pocket to save money in the long run. Spark plugs are an example of something that I would spend more on. However, I just replaced on the RV with standard plugs because I expect the plugs will outlive me.
    I am retired. I walked to the parts store picking up cans along the way.

  14. For those who wonder what cost of producing power, you can see what is being bid at at in the lower left corner (2-4 cent per kwh). Of course if demand is very high, you will also see how much utilities pay to keep the lights on. Of course there is transmission cost too.
    “We are thankful for cheap coal fired electricity in Indiana at 8.73 c/kWh average!”
    I went to high school and college in Indiana where redistribution of wealth is not very popular. Do not blame wind or solar for the taxes hidden in your utility bill.

  15. I keep reading about these studies that are led by graduate students/doctorlal candidates. Where are the full professors who don’t have time for underclass students because of their research commitments? Why are grad students getting press when they haven’t demonstrated proficiency, i.e. earned a degree?

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