Electric car batteries are problematic. On the one hand, they ensure electric cars (EVs) produce zero exhaust emissions. On the other, they are very bad for the environment. They can have serious consequences if they are sent to landfills. That’s why electric car battery recycling is so important.
In fact, the EU Battery Directive states that we must recycle 50% of every EV battery. New changes proposed recently would see more materials recycled from every battery. The new Directive would include targets of:
According to Anwar Sattar, lead engineer at Warwick Manufacturing Group, this should be easier to do than it actually is. "Technically, over 90% of the cell can be recovered, but since recycling involves the reuse of the recovered material, it becomes a commercial activity and companies will only recycle those parts that give them a positive financial return”, Sanwar said.
While the process is so expensive and there is no benefit to recycling the whole battery, companies won't make the extra effort. But we need to improve the way we dispose of electric car batteries else we face another environmental crisis.
So, what are the problems with electric car battery recycling? By the end of this article, you will understand
Recycling batteries is expensive. If there is no law stating that we must recycle lithium-ion batteries completely, they won't be.
A prime example is the legislation imposed on lead-acid battery recycling. As a result, we now recycle as much as 99% of the lead used in these batteries. However, even this leads to high operational costs for recyclers who do it properly. Backyard battery recyclers cut corners and do it much cheaper - but it's also a much more toxic, unsafe process. Legislation for recycling EV batteries is necessary but we must make sure that we don't penalise those who follow them. Otherwise, the same problems will arise.
We don't build electric car batteries to be recycled completely. While it’s very easy to recycle the wiring and plastics, the precious metal components are hard to get at and even harder to remove. They are also very volatile which makes the process even more difficult. This is why most recyclers currently don't try to recycle the metal components.
We weld the different parts of an EV battery together. While this creates an effective battery, it is very bad for recycling. Building our batteries in a different way can make the whole process simpler.
In the EU and China, battery manufacturers are responsible for collection and recycling systems. They must pay for, and responsibly manage, the disposal of electric car batteries. In the UK, you must dispose of a used car battery in this way. These companies will then dispose of and recycle them, where possible.
A UK startup called Aceleron has found a battery construction solution that will make recycling easier. They use fasteners to compress the metal contacts together instead of welding. This makes the electrical connection just as effective but also makes it easier to separate and recycle the parts. If this technology becomes widely accepted, it will make electric car battery recycling cheaper and easier.
Building an electric car battery has serious ecological, ethical and human rights issues. The worst culprit is Cobalt mining. The Democratic Republic of Congo contains most of the Cobalt on Earth and they don't retrieve it sustainably. The mining process often scars the ground, causing as many environmental problems as it solves. As a result, we need to reduce our dependency on this process.
On top of that, the materials used in these batteries are finite. Electric cars can't be a sustainable mode of transport if we don't reuse or recycle the batteries. Else, we will burn through these natural resources as we did with fossil fuels. Greenpeace estimates that 12m tonnes of EV batteries will be retired between 2021 and 2030. That’s an environmental catastrophe waiting to happen if we aren’t smarter with how we recycle the batteries.
Fortunately, several companies are working on solutions to this problem.
Here are some of the ways electric car battery recycling is being improved:
These Belgian-based battery recyclers process 35,000 EV batteries per year. They use pyro and hydro-metallurgy processes to effectively recycle the raw materials. This means they put more of each battery back into the production cycle. They also expect to expand their operation further in the coming years.
This Finnish company claimed an impressive 80% recycling rate for lithium-ion batteries. They also improved that process in November 2020 to make it even more efficient. Their low-CO2 hydrometallurgical recycling process is both eco-friendly and recovers Cobalt, Nickel and Manganese more efficiently than many others.
In January 2022, this French energy company announced they will build the UK’s first battery recycling plant. By 2024, they aim to process 20% of all end-of-life batteries in the UK.
While these are all good solutions, recycling might not always be the answer. While an EV battery will lose capacity to the point where it can't power a car, that doesn't mean it's no longer useful.
Electric car batteries can be reused as a secondary power source once they reach the end of their life in your car. Currently, this means they store excess power generated by solar or wind farms.
Lead-acid batteries are currently used in this system. Replacing them with lithium-ion batteries is both safer and more effective. Lead-acid batteries can be very toxic and don’t last very long, especially in hot conditions. As many of these systems are found in Africa, this is a big problem. What's more, lead-acid batteries can also cause serious problems if they aren't disposed of properly. Replacing them with lithium-ion batteries is better for the planet.
Many EV manufacturers are also developing new ways to give their batteries a second life. Here are some of the most significant.
Volvo aims to have a “closed loop” by 2040. This would see all the materials in their cars recycled. To kick-start this, they have partnered with Battery Loop to create a similar solar energy system. Their old EV batteries help to power electric car and bike charging points in Gothenburg.
As well as this, they have partnered with Comsys (a cleantech company) and Fortum to increase supply flexibility at a Swedish hydropower facility. This pilot system uses old PHEV (plug-in hybrid) batteries as a stationary energy storage unit. This supplies “fast balancing” services and helps to power the system.
Nissan uses second-life Leaf batteries in several ways. One of these is to provide static energy storage in domestic and industrial installations. Other batteries power automated guiding robots that deliver parts to workers in their factories. Nissan also supplied 90 retired Leaf batteries to the Enel Group to create an energy storage facility in Mellila, Spain. This is self-sustaining and completely isolated from the Spanish National Grid.
Nissan has also created xStorage, a rival to Tesla’s Powerwall. This is an off-the-shelf home or commercial energy storage system.
Alongside their Powerwall storage system, Tesla plans to recycle their electric car batteries to a point where reclaimed materials negate the need to mine new ones.
BMW partnered with Off Grid Energy in late 2020 to supply end-of-life BMW and MINI batteries to use in mobile power units. The first prototype is now in use and was displayed at BMW and MINI UK events during 2020 and 2021. It delivers a 7.2kW fast charge from a 40kWh capacity battery.
BMW and Off Grid Energy aim to create future models with extended capacity. They are hoping to create a 180kWh capacity battery that delivers multiple charges at rates up to 50kW in the future.
Renault launched their SmartHubs project in October 2020. This West Sussex energy system uses 1,000 second-life EV batteries to “provide cleaner, lower-cost energy for use in social housing, transport, infrastructure, private homes and local businesses”, according to an official statement.
The system has enough energy to power 1,700 homes for a day and helps to balance the electricity network. Renault also use a more powerful system at their George Besse factory in Douai, France.
These projects are just a few that are in development. Despite this, not everyone is convinced that reusing electric car batteries is the future.
Even though these projects are making progress, many manufacturers and leading scientists don't think they're the way to go. They don't think second-life batteries have huge long-term benefits. Instead, they argue that recycling EV batteries is a much better solution.
Mercedes-Benz, Gavin Harper (a research fellow of the Faraday Institution) and Volvo are some of the leading voices in this argument. But why are Volvo against it? Why fund a second-life project if you don't believe in it? Well, even though they are investing in those projects, they maintain that they are just pilots. They want to test whether reusing batteries makes more sense than recycling so that they can then commit to the best process.
So, what is the argument for recycling batteries over reusing them? Well, buildings and transport have different needs for lithium-ion batteries. In an electric car, the battery needs to be small and light to maximise efficiency. In a building, they don't need to worry about weight. Therefore, the argument is that recycling Lithium and Cobalt from old EV batteries to put back into new ones is better than putting them into buildings.
Clearly, there is no easy answer to this debate because we don't yet know whether we should reuse or recycle electric car batteries. What we do know is that we can't create single-life lithium-ion batteries. It's up to scientists and engineers to find the best solution.
Of course, the easiest way to remove many of these problems is to reduce our reliance on lithium-ion batteries.
Lithium-ion batteries are the problem so if we can develop a battery pack that is much kinder to the environment, we solve the problem once and for all. As a result, there are a couple of viable alternatives already in development.
Sodium-ion batteries work in a similar way to lithium-ion batteries. We can also recycle them in a similar way. The biggest upside is that Sodium is a much more common element than Lithium. It is also much cheaper to source and use.
However, sodium-ion batteries are still in the early stages of development. Currently, they are not in the right state to power an EV. They need to get to the same level of performance as lithium-ion batteries before we can consider them for wider use.
Laptops and other electronic devices already use solid-state batteries. They are much less flammable and could be even more efficient than lithium-ion batteries. With the technology already there, it might not be too hard to develop it for use in electric cars. That’s why plenty of manufacturers are researching the technology with the view of putting solid-state batteries in an EV this decade. These manufacturers include Nissan, Ford and Volkswagen.
However, solid-state batteries are harder to recycle. They need chemical separation, which can be very expensive to do properly. While the Faraday Institution is working on improving this, a breakthrough could be years away. On top of that, we don’t expect viable solid-state batteries to arrive before 2025-2030. Even then, they would only be available on expensive, high-end models.
In short, while we are looking at other options, lithium-ion batteries are the only option for a few years. As they are here to stay, we must improve the recycling process to make electric cars eco-friendly throughout their lifecycle.
Electric car battery recycling presents plenty of challenges. However, the fact remains: we must avoid wasting the precious materials we use in them. The EU doesn’t have the raw materials available to ignore EV battery recycling. It is the only way to ensure a ready supply of new batteries without sourcing unethical parts. On top of that, recycling or reusing these batteries will make an EV more eco-friendly from start to finish.
That means that we must solve the current problems with lithium-ion batteries. We must also make sure that the legislation rewards companies that recycle the batteries effectively, while also ensuring they follow strict directives. We expect plenty of progress in this sector over the next few years as electric cars take a majority market share. If not, we're just creating different problems for ourselves and our planet.
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