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What do EV batteries have to do with health?

Stanford researchers combine epidemiology and management to confront a growing threat from lead-acid batteries in electric vehicles.

Stanford researchers are collaborating to address greenhouse gas emissions and pollution from lead acid batteries often found in three-wheeled electric vehicles. Image credit: Getty Images

Confronted with a growing public health threat in South Asia, Stanford epidemiologist Stephen Luby realized he needed help from an unlikely source. Luby worried about the rapid conversion of Bangladesh’s ubiquitous three-wheeled vehicles from natural gas to more affordable lead acid batteries. Widespread illegal recycling of electric vehicle batteries threatened to expose millions of people to the neurotoxin lead. A meaningful solution would require the business acumen not only to incentivize safe battery recycling, but to incentivize a circular economy for better batteries and electric vehicles.

“Public health physicians are not known for their embrace of the market,” Luby said. “I thought, let me find somebody who’s thinking about the environment and business.”

Luby found Erica Plambeck, a professor of operations, information and technology at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and, like Luby, a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. Plambeck was drawn to the challenge.

“The lead poisoning is heartbreaking,” Plambeck said. “There are huge economic inefficiencies that create opportunities to profitably reduce the lead emissions.”

Plambeck and Luby soon started working with Amrita Kundu and Moogdho Mahzab, Stanford postdoctoral scholars with deep understanding of the region. Their collaboration received early support from the Stanford King Center on Global Development and Woods’ Realizing Environmental Innovation Program, and has since raised more than $500,000 in funding from various sources, including the UK’s International Growth Center, the United Nations Sustainable Manufacturing and Environment Program, and Georgetown University, where Kundu is now an assistant professor of operations and information management. The team has since grown to include Shakeel Jajja, an associate professor of operations and supply chain management at Lahore University.

High stakes

The stakes are high. About one million adults die each year because of their exposure to lead. When children are exposed to lead, it kills their brain cells, causing permanent loss of intellectual capacity that leads to lost lifetime earnings and reduced productivity worth about a trillion dollars a year. 

“Lead is a toxin like no other,” Luby said. “It is the element on the periodic table that does most damage to human health.” 

One in three children worldwide has some form of lead poisoning, with most of those children in low and middle income countries, particularly in South Asia. In Bangladesh, lead poisoning affects closer to two out of three children, and the problem is poised to grow exponentially.

Increasingly higher prices have led to a shortage of natural gas in Bangladesh. As a result, the country’s energy minister wants to convert three-wheeled vehicles, used for about 200 million rides per day, from natural gas to battery electric power. High import taxes on imported batteries and growth in home solar energy systems dependent on battery storage have also contributed to a booming industry in batteries and battery recycling. 

That might sound like good news, but taxes and expensive pollution controls required of recyclers have spawned a network of informal recyclers that often break apart batteries and burn coal to smelt their parts in open-air pits. Weak government controls and corruption exacerbate the situation. The result: increasing exposure to lead for millions of people and low-quality batteries.

Thinking big

Rather than focus on the recycling process alone, Plambeck and Luby are finding ways to intervene in the entire system to make the lead-acid batteries in EVs last much longer  (which will reduce the rate of recycling and manufacturing of the lead-acid batteries and associated lead emissions) and substitute advanced, lead-free batteries.   

For example, their field work in Bangladesh reveals that electric vehicle drivers commonly pay little or nothing for the electricity that charges their batteries.  Moreover, when purchasing new batteries, they cannot obtain trustworthy information about battery energy-efficiency. This motivates battery manufacturers to make cheap batteries that become hot during charging, wasting electricity and damaging the batteries, causing them to fail faster. They are figuring out how to have drivers pay for electricity, to boost demand for reliably energy-efficient, longer-lasting batteries.  

Their ongoing field research in battery shops reveals misinformation, counterfeiting and lack of tax collection, which motivates battery manufacturers to make the cheap batteries that fail fast, increasing the rate of battery recycling and manufacturing and lead emissions in a deadly cycle. An alternative business model is for a manufacturer to sell long-lasting batteries directly to vehicle owners.   

With input from Bangladeshi business people and scholars, Plambeck and Luby are reaching out to battery manufacturers and technologists to find the best partners to provide long-lasting lead acid batteries and advanced batteries without lead for electric vehicles in Bangladesh, with microfinance loans, battery maintenance training for drivers, and other business model innovations that will increase the battery useful life.  

“Business practices are exposing children to brain-damaging levels of lead,” said Luby. “We are fortunate at Stanford to work with world class business scholars to devise and test approaches to decrease this exposure.”

Luby is also a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. Plambeck is also a professor of civil and environmental engineering in the Stanford School of Engineering.

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