Electric vehicles are great, but the environmental cost of nickel batteries is too high

Your next major purchase may be an electric vehicle, but most of the batteries in electric vehicles are made with nickel, which is a poor choice for planet lovers. The associated increased demand for nickel is accelerating strip-mining of tropical forests and incurring other negative consequences in Indonesia and the Philippines. We do need some mining to make the transition away from carbon-based transportation, but strip-mining in tropical environments is too high a cost to pay. Instead, buyers should choose electric vehicles with lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries, which have a much more manageable environmental impact.

Unlike many minerals that can be mined in deep excavations, which are relatively small in extent, this laterite nickel is widespread and shallow. Such deposits only form in tropical settings with high seasonal rainfall with a particular geologic bedrock. Necessarily, the first step in getting at this nickel is to remove everything living on the surface, which often means rainforest. Rainforest everywhere is well-known for its high biodiversity, but the rainforests of Indonesia and the Philippines are spectacularly diverse and contain a multitude of unique species because of the high rate of speciation in island settings. Not only that, such mines often result in the release of chromium-6 — which is both toxic and a carcinogen — into waterways. In addition, once the topsoil is removed, the tropical rains wash off a lot of sediment, which is carried onto adjacent coral reefs. This is why, when it comes to mining, strip-mining is the nuclear option.

A wrinkle here is that, because of the chemistry involved, it takes specialized and expensive processes to make the nickel from tropical strip-mines suitable for use in batteries. Because of this, most batteries get their nickel from hard-rock mines. Nevertheless, with demand for nickel for electric vehicles growing exponentially, more and more strip-mined nickel is headed for electric vehicles, despite the cost. Not only that, but as electric vehicles take up more and more of the available hard-rock nickel, those uses that can use either source (such as stainless steel) will shift more toward strip-mined nickel. This is because there is little prospect for growth in hard-rock nickel mining. Therefore, most of the increase in nickel production is going to come from highly destructive strip-mining, especially in Indonesia and the Philippines.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has determined that more than 40,000 species are threatened with extinction. This is 28% of all assessed species. The biodiversity crisis is parallel and in tandem with the climate crisis. These two crises need to be addressed together, not in competition with each other. A necessary component of addressing the climate crisis is reduced greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles, and electric vehicles are an essential component of this.

Clearly, we need to transition to electric vehicles, and this is gaining a lot of support not only here in Washington but also nationally. However, in our attempts to address one crisis, we risk exacerbating another. Fortunately, we can have electric vehicles with batteries with materials sourced in responsible ways. Functional batteries without nickel exist and are available in some electric cars. These LFP batteries use materials that are available without causing such a huge environmental impact.

Unfortunately, it can be difficult to obtain reliable information on exactly which type of batteries different electric vehicles use. Manufacturers websites almost never mention this, and it has been my experience that sales people are typically uninformed on this subject. But, as far as I can tell, of the electric vehicles you can order today, the following are the models that use LFP batteries: Tesla Model 3 rear-wheel drive; Rivian R1T standard battery pack; Rivian R1S standard battery pack. All the other vehicles available today use high-nickel batteries, but more LFP models are probably coming soon and will likely be more affordable than those listed above. High-nickel batteries have some advantages over LFP, but their environmental cost is too high.

Currently, electric vehicles with LFP batteries are being mass-produced in India and China, and some of these are currently available in Australia and South America. So far, the USA market, however, emphasizes high performance and luxury models. It reminds me of the 1960s, when U.S. automakers continued to push large, gas-guzzling vehicles with planned obsolescence, only to lose market share to reliable and economical Toyotas, Datsuns/Nissans and Volkswagens. Maybe your next vehicle will have a name you have not heard of yet, such as BYD or Mahindra.