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Batteries Needed For Green Transition Are ‘Unrecognized’ Source Of Pollution, Study Finds

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The lithium-ion batteries that are essential to the green energy transition are an “unrecognized and potentially growing” source of chemical pollution, according to a new study published in Nature.

The study sought to fill in knowledge gaps about whether or not chemicals used in lithium-ion battery components can pose environmental hazards, a key question given that Western policymakers are relying on the technology to help replace fossil fuel-fired infrastructure and meet long-term emissions reductions targets. After conducting “a cradle-to-grave evaluation” on the subject and collecting dozens of samples in the U.S. and Europe, the study’s authors “[confirmed] the clean energy sector as an unrecognized and potentially growing source” of chemical pollution, and that the growing prominence of lithium-ion batteries around the world makes pollution from their waste “an issue of global concern.”

The chemicals that the study focuses on are a specific type of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) known as bis-perfluoroalkyl sulfonimides (bis-FASIs), as well as other chemicals manufacturers use to build batteries. PFAS chemicals are known to be “recalcitrant contaminants, a subset of which are known to be mobile and toxic, but little is known about environmental impacts of bis-FASIs released during [lithium ion battery] manufacture, use, and disposal,” the study’s authors wrote.

“Disposal of PFAS-containing lithium ion batteries in landfills or through recycling processes should be carefully managed to determine risks of release into the environment,” P. Lee Ferguson, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Duke University and one of the study’s authors, told the Daily Caller News Foundation. “We hope that our work will help to catalyze more discussions about the life-cycle considerations for materials used in applications such as clean energy generation and storage.”

Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries are a key part of green energy systems and electric vehicles (EVs), and they also are used in equipment like cell phones, laptops, medical devices and more. Given that demand for these batteries is expected to explode in the coming decade and beyond, and that as little as 5% of these batteries are recycled, the world could have up to 8 million tons of battery waste on its hands by 2040, the study estimates.

Moreover, there is “potential for widespread environmental releases” of PFAS during the manufacture of lithium-ion batteries, as well as their use, recycling and disposal, the study states. The paper demonstrates that lithium-ion batteries — technology that proponents claim will be responsible for reducing pollution — may not be a slam-dunk environmental solution, and that policymakers and environmentalists may be well-served to consider possible trade-offs.

“Upscaling of clean and sustainable energy infrastructure and reduction of aquatic pollution are both critical environmental engineering efforts,” Jennifer Guelfo, an assistant professor of environmental engineering at Texas Tech University and an author of the study, told the DCNF. “Right now this study points to a conflict between the two, but in our view, it doesn’t have to be that way. Scientists, engineers, policy makers, and other stakeholders have the tools to assess potential environmental risks of the compounds we are using within infrastructure, and we hope this study will highlight the need for such assessments.”

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