My phone is basically an extension of my arm at this point. To be honest, I have some mixed feelings about that, and not just because I worry about what being online 24/7 is doing to my brain cells.
As you might know, lithium-ion batteries power most of our personal electronics today. Mining the metals that make up those batteries can mean a lot of pollution, as well as harmful conditions for workers. All these problems are starting to balloon as we use lithium and assorted other materials not just in our phones and laptops, but in electric vehicles as well.
The good news is, as I’ve written about before, a growing number of groups are working to make sure batteries get recycled—and some of those efforts are becoming mainstream.
Last week Apple announced that its batteries would use 100% recycled cobalt beginning in 2025. I think this announcement says a lot about where the battery recycling industry is and where it’s going. So for the newsletter this week, let’s dive into Apple’s recycling pledge.
There’s obviously a huge array of materials that go into phones and computers, and Apple’s recycling announcement isn’t just about cobalt. The company also said that by 2025, it plans to use recycled rare-earth elements in its magnets (like the ones that help your watch and phone charge wirelessly), as well as recycled materials for the tin soldering and gold plating used for its circuit boards.
But it’s probably no accident that cobalt is the headline item. The metal has become something of a poster child for all the potential damage mining could do in the name of the clean-energy economy. It’s a key ingredient in lithium-ion batteries, and today, cobalt is mined largely in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the activity has been tied to human rights abuses like forced labor. There’s a huge New Yorker feature about this from 2021, as well as a new book, if you want to learn more.
As of 2022, Apple was already using about 25% recycled cobalt in its batteries, up from 13% the year before. And as the new release lays out, in just a few years, all the cobalt in all “Apple-designed batteries” will be from recycled sources. One quick note here—I reached out to Apple to ask what total volume of cobalt this would represent, along with a few other questions about the news. The company hasn’t gotten back to me yet.
I decided to dig into this announcement a bit more because of a trend I’d come across in my previous reporting on battery recycling—there’s not enough old batteries getting recycled to meet demand for recycled materials.
Around and around
When it comes to materials for clean energy, a lot of people talk about a “circular economy” where batteries coming off the roads in old EVs can be used to make new ones, with zero (or very little) mining for new materials. For that to happen, you’d need about as many batteries on the metaphorical off-ramp as the number coming onto the on-ramp. And that’s not what’s happening at all.
In case you hadn’t heard, electric vehicles are on the rise. In 2017, a little over 1% of new vehicles sold globally were EVs. Just five years later, in 2022, that number had increased to about 13%, according to the International Energy Agency. We’re probably going to keep seeing more EVs hitting the road every year for a while, especially as countries pass new policies boosting EVs around the world.
The quick uptake of EVs is great news for climate action, but it’s causing a tricky dynamic for battery recyclers.
Batteries can last over a decade in a vehicle, and they can be in use for even longer if they end up getting a second life in stationary energy storage. So an EV battery won’t be ready to be recycled for at least around 15 years, in most cases. Looking back 15 years ago, in 2008, the Tesla Roadster had just started production, and the company made just a few hundred annually for the first couple of years. To put it mildly: there aren’t many EVs coming off the roads because of old age today, and there won’t be for a while.
So as the EV market continues to grow exponentially, there’s going to be a shortage of recycled materials. If all EV and phone manufacturers wanted to use only recycled cobalt, for example, there wouldn’t be enough to go around.
Production of batteries for EVs is booming: the global total of lithium-ion batteries produced for light-duty vehicles could top 12 million metric tons by 2030. Meanwhile, less than 200,000 metric tons of batteries from the same types of vehicles will be available for recycling by that date.
Despite that daunting gap, there are a couple reasons Apple can probably meet its pledge on recycled cobalt, says Hans Eric Melin, head of Circular Energy Storage, a consulting firm specializing in battery recycling.
For one, portable devices have been powered using lithium-ion batteries for decades. Thanks to your dad’s camcorder and your Motorola Razr flip phone from 2006, there’s at least some recycled cobalt floating around the market today.
And the economics of using recycled materials shake out to be pretty different for personal devices and cars. Because of its size, an EV battery can be nearly 40% of the cost of the vehicle, Melin says. That’s not the case with devices like a phone, so a company like Apple will probably be able to pay a bit more for recycled battery materials without affecting the price of the whole device.
So your iPhone in 2025 (by my math, that might be the iPhone 17) could be made using cobalt from recycled sources. Vehicles might take a bit longer: EV batteries are bigger, and there are fewer old ones ready for a new life. But we’re inching toward a world where we can reuse more of the materials in the technology we know and love.
I spoke with JB Straubel, Tesla’s former CTO and founder of battery recycler Redwood Materials. Here’s what he had to say about the challenges ahead for batteries.
The first-ever edition of this newsletter was a travel journal of sorts from my trip to Redwood. Revisit that trip here.
Efforts to slow down climate change and adapt to what’s already happening are complicated and difficult. What if we could also try to counteract a bit of the planetary warming we’ve already caused? Some researchers say it’s an intriguing enough idea to at least look into.
Geoengineering is understandably controversial, since large-scale efforts, or even attempts to study the potential effects, could change life for people across the planet. And what’s good for some might not be good for all. As debates rage on, some groups are working to get a wider range of voices into the room, especially from climate-vulnerable nations that arguably have the most at stake.
My colleague James Temple took a look inside some of the groups working to open up who’s involved in the conversation around geoengineering. Check out his insightful story for more.
Keeping up with climate
The EPA released new rules last week that will limit emissions from new vehicles sold in the US, beginning in 2027. The policy is another big boost for EVs. The problem is, the country isn’t building chargers quickly enough to keep up. Here’s what the new rules might mean and how charging infrastructure will need to grow to keep up. (MIT Technology Review)
We can build more fire-resistant structures today than we used to, and urban planners have more strategies to slow down blazes. Changing how people react to wildfires could be the hardest part of adapting. (MIT Technology Review)
EV charging was a constant topic of discussion at one of the country’s biggest auto shows in New York earlier this month. (Canary Media)
I find heat pumps fascinating, but most people find them a little … boring. Three studios took a crack at rebranding them. (Bloomberg)
→ Find out more about how a heat pump works. (MIT Technology Review)
Hydrogen can be a tool to fight climate change—or make things worse. This is a great breakdown of how details matter when it comes to the fuel. (New York Times Opinion)
Lithium-ion batteries can help support renewables like wind and solar by saving energy for when it’s needed. But some communities are scared about what happens if energy storage facilities catch fire. (Inside Climate News)
Fusion energy might be on its way to finally becoming a reality. But even if we see fusion power plants this century, they probably won’t provide the cheap, limitless energy everyone dreams about. (Wired)
→ Here’s what’s really going on with fusion energy. (MIT Technology Review)
This startup has a new way to generate electricity using water: instead of building massive concrete dams or disturbing ecosystems in rivers, it is building hydropower systems in canals. (Associated Press)
Texas leads US states in renewable power generation. But new legislation could hinder progress. (Inside Climate News)
Climate change and energy
How a half-trillion dollars is transforming climate technology
Checking in with the landmark Inflation Reduction Act, one year later.
Zinc batteries that offer an alternative to lithium just got a big boost
The US Department of Energy just committed a $400 million loan to battery maker Eos.
This startup has engineered a clever way to reuse waste heat from cloud computing
Heata is now using these busy servers to heat water for homes.
How electricity could clean up transportation, steel, and even fertilizer
More industries are joining the charge to electrify everything in order to cut emissions.
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