Lithium (Li-ion) batteries used to power plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles show overall promise to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but there are areas for improvement to reduce possible environmental and public health impacts, according to a study for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on advanced Li-ion batteries recently completed by Abt Associates, a research firm of health, social and environmental policy, and international development. The study was the first life-cycle assessment to bring together and use data directly provided by Li-ion battery suppliers, manufacturers, and recyclers.

The environmental impacts include resource depletion, global warming, and ecological toxicity — primarily resulting from the production, processing, and use of cobalt and nickel metal compounds, which can cause adverse respiratory, pulmonary, and neurological effects in those exposed, according to Jay Smith, Abt senior analyst and co-lead of the life-cycle assessment. There are viable ways to reduce these impacts, he said, including cathode material substitution, solventless electrode processing, and recycling of metals from the batteries.

The life-cycle assessment results and methodology are described in detail in the EPA/Abt report, "Application of Life-Cycle Assessment to Nanoscale Technology: Lithium-ion Batteries for Electric Vehicles". The research for the life-cycle assessment was undertaken through the Lithium-ion Batteries and Nanotechnology for Electric Vehicles Partnership, which was led by EPA's Design for the Environment Program in the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention and Toxics, and EPA's National Risk Management Research Laboratory in the Office of Research and Development. The Partnership also included battery manufacturers, recyclers, and suppliers from the Department of Energy's Argonne National Lab, Arizona State University, and the Rochester Institute of Technology.