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Advances in software can reduce EVs’ carbon footprint, facilitate battery recycling.

Emissions, Sustainability and the Electric Vehicle

Digitalization is helping companies continually improve the sustainability and performance of electric vehicles and batteries.

In the U.S., transportation emissions contributed the largest share of greenhouse-gas emissions in 2020 at 27% (EPA, 2022). In the same year, it is estimated that transportation accounted for 7.2 billion tons of global carbon-dioxide emissions (International Energy Agency, 2021).

As we work to reduce our impact on climate and the environment, reducing these emissions is crucial. This is a tall task to be sure, but one we can still achieve through continued innovation in sustainable technologies, including the systems that power our various vehicles and machines.

Several solutions to the problem of transportation emissions have been proposed, tested and even put into production. In the past five years, vehicle electrification has taken hold in the automotive market and in consumer consciousness as a practical and expedient means of reducing carbon and other greenhouse-gas emissions in the transportation sector.

By powering vehicles with electricity instead of gasoline, we can eliminate the emissions that a traditional vehicle generates as it burns fuel, all while maintaining a comparable driving and user experience. As a result, the modality is gaining significant momentum as more models are brought to market, costs fall and new environmental regulations come into effect around the world. But, when looking at the entire production and usage lifecycle of the EV, there are sustainability challenges that remain unsolved.

EV manufacturing contributes significantly to the overall carbon footprint of each vehicle, largely due to the processes involved in battery production. EV batteries require raw materials such as cobalt, lithium and other rare earth metals. Extracting these materials requires energy to power the mining equipment, most of which comes from the combustion of fossil fuels. The energy used to turn these raw materials into battery cells and then battery packs that will power an EV adds another factor to the sustainability equation.

Coal and other fossil fuels are still used to generate electrical power in much of the world, including the largest EV markets: China, the U.S., and Europe. As a result, the production of an EV and its components frequently contributes to carbon emissions. Likewise, the source of the electricity used to charge an EV has an influence on overall sustainability performance. While EVs do not emit any carbon during their operation, charging up on electricity that was generated in a coal power plant cuts into those emissions savings.

The fate of EV battery packs at the end of a vehicle’s service life is another sustainability concern. Battery-electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid vehicles are projected to account for a growing share of vehicle sales around the world, leading to a rapid increase in the number of battery packs being produced.

The environmental cost of simply disposing of these battery packs would be immense due to both the hazardous contents of lithium-ion batteries and the increased demand for new materials that would need to be mined from the earth. Thus, the industry needs a system of repurposing, refurbishing and recycling EV battery cells, contained within modules and packs, to prevent additional environmental harm while also recirculating materials into the manufacturing ecosystem.

At present, the recycling ecosystem for EV battery packs is still developing. Recycling a battery pack involves the manual disassembly of battery cells to obtain valuable materials inside, including rare earth metals, making it a time-consuming and costly process that is ill-prepared for the future influx of vehicle batteries.

The good news is that digitalization is helping companies address these challenges, enabling them to continually improve the sustainability and performance of EVs and batteries. For example, advanced battery simulation solutions help engineers develop and test everything from the battery’s microstructure and electrochemistry to overall battery performance evaluation, leading to more capacious and efficient battery packs.

Nand Kocchar (Siemens).jpgThese simulation solutions can help develop new battery types that do not rely on hazardous materials, making them cleaner to produce and easier to recycle. Through digitalization, companies also can manage all the materials, energy and other resources that are consumed during the production and maintenance of the vehicle, providing an accurate picture of its total environmental impact.

With this knowledge, automakers can take action to minimize emissions, waste and consumption of resources such as water and electricity. Through these and other measures, we can leverage digitalization to make EVs an increasingly powerful option in the fight against climate change.

Nand Kochhar (pictured, above left) is vice president of Automotive & Transportation for Siemens Digital Industries Software. He joined Siemens in 2020 after nearly 30 years with Ford, where he most recently served as global safety systems chief engineer.

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