Electric Vehicle Batteries Recyclable
Electric Vehicle Batteries Recyclable : As Electric Vehicle (EV) sales continue to increase, questions about how these cars and their batteries will be disposed of have been top of mind for current owners, future buyers, policymakers, and many experts in the automotive industry.
EVs are a newer technology, and their batteries require different end-of-life processing than gasoline vehicles. Luckily, lithium-ion battery recycling research and development has been going on for years and there is an existing and growing repurposing and recycling system in North America for these components. The map below is from recent research that explores the network of companies already recycling and repurposing batteries – these include recycling companies such as Redwood Materials, Li-Cycle, and Ascend Elements. The industry is quickly growing capacity for future recycling, with planned facilities in Nevada, New York, and Georgia, to name just a few.
Between 2000 and 2018, the number of lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) manufactured was multiplied by 80. In 2018, 66% of them were used in electric vehicles (EVs). The planned development of electric mobility will increase demand for batteries, with the International Energy Agency estimating that between 2019 and 2030, battery demand will grow 17-fold.
This situation raises many questions related to the materials used to manufacture these batteries: what resources are involved? What are the environmental impacts of extracting them? Can they be recycled?
When looking into the materials in the LIBs that are currently used in the vast majority of EVs, the first thing to know is that there are multiple kinds of battery technology. While all contain lithium, the other components vary: batteries in telephones or computers contain cobalt, whereas those for vehicles may contain cobalt with nickel or manganese, or none at all in the case of iron-phosphate technologies.
The exact chemical composition of these storage components is difficult to identify, as it is a trade secret. Furthermore, improvements are regularly made to batteries to increase their performance, so their chemical composition evolves over time. In any case, the main materials involved in manufacturing LIBs are lithium, cobalt, nickel, manganese and graphite. These have all been identified as materials presenting supply and environmental risks.
The question of supply for these materials is a complex one: on the one hand, the value of reserves is subject to geopolitical considerations and evolutions in extraction techniques; on the other, needs for materials are very sensitive to hypothetical forecasts (number of EVs and battery size).
What’s valuable in a vehicle battery?
Lithium-ion batteries contain many valuable materials worth recovering and saving from a landfill.
Prior to recycling, the battery is disassembled and shredded using large machinery, breaking the battery into small pieces. Once the shredding is completed, the materials are sifted and separated based on size. This divides them into three different categories: plastics, ferrous materials, and non-ferrous materials (also called black mass). The black mass consists of the critical materials, cobalt, lithium, nickel, and manganese, which can individually be recovered using a hydrometallurgical process.
Hydrometallurgical recycling begins with leaching to create a solvent that contains the critical materials. The individual materials are then recovered using solvent extraction, precipitation, and purification. Hydrometallurgy is well known in the metals industry as a similar process is also used to extract the materials from ore after it is mined. Many US-based lithium-ion recycling companies use a variation of this process and report a material recovery rate of 95%–98%.
Can we use recycled materials to manufacture new batteries?
Yes! Once materials have been recovered, they can then be processed and used in the manufacturing of new lithium-ion batteries. This is a preferable source to using virgin ore because it reduces the amount of mining necessary to produce EVs.
Recent research has shown that by 2050 recycled materials could supply 45–52% of cobalt, 22–27% of lithium, and 40–46% of nickel used in the United States light- and heavy-duty vehicle fleet. Efforts across the United States to increase the sales of EVs are underway – places like California expect to have 100% of all car sales be electric by 2035 – so being able to recycle batteries and reuse the metal within them is a critical step in the transformation to a cleaner transportation system.
Recycling is key to making EVs greener
EV batteries currently represent about half of the lithium-ion batteries (by mass) that are being recycled, which also includes consumer electronics and waste from battery manufacturing. With 3.8 million EVs on the road today in North America and sales growing year over year, the number of EVs retiring in coming years will continue to increase as they eventually are totaled or age out of the fleet.
This increase will result in vehicle batteries comprising a much higher percentage of the recycling stream; retirements are expected to be 6 to 7 times higher in 2025 than in 2020 and 20 to 40 times higher in 2030. Companies recycling these batteries are setting themselves up to accommodate this upcoming wave by expanding their capacity.
These recycling companies are securing a battery stream by partnering with auto manufacturers. For example, major automakers are partnering with Redwood Materials, a recycling company based in Nevada. Redwood is not only recycling but will soon be closing the material loop by manufacturing battery components with recovered materials.
Redwood Materials has also implemented a recycling program to learn more about the location of retired and uncollected batteries, and how to decrease the costs of transporting these batteries to the recycling facility. Transportation from their location of retirement to the recycling plant is expensive, representing about 50-60% of the recycling costs. These costs are due to the special packaging and requirements needed for shipping retired batteries and their large size and weight. But, transportation costs can potentially be decreased if a more efficient collection system is developed.
Researchers have been modeling potential reverse logistics networks and now Redwood Materials is completing research of their own through a learning-by-doing approach. Their new Recycling Program consists of picking up and recycling any retired lithium-ion battery in California at no cost. They are also working with dealerships and dismantlers in order to collect as many batteries as possible.
California is considering battery recycling requirements
As you can see, there is a lot happening in the industry space. And while there is currently no recycling requirement in the United States, California passed a bill that indicates recycling may be a priority for the state.
Assembly Bill 2832 passed in 2018 creating the California Battery Recycling Advisory Group. This group consists of automotive and battery manufacturers, government agency representatives, and public interest groups. They recently recommended policies to the legislature that could increase the recycling of EV batteries. These recommendations included the creation of a California State requirement that batteries be recycled, holding the auto manufacturer responsible for ensuring that happens. This is not unlike how mattress, paint, and carpet disposal is currently regulated within California.
In addition to the California work, the federal government is also paying attention. In the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, funds were allocated toward battery recycling research and development. This is in addition to the funding of the ReCell Center, a lab created by the Department of Energy that is focused on decreasing costs and increasing yields of recycling.
Battery end-of-life is very important for ensuring that batteries are safely disposed of and that materials are recovered and used again in battery manufacturing. While there is a lot going on to push forward the uptake of EVs and replace gasoline cars for good, many people are simultaneously working to make sure that EV batteries are being reused, repurposed, and recycled.
What are the environmental impacts?
The question of the environmental impacts of battery manufacturing is perhaps even more important. Even if there are enough materials, the impacts of their use must be seriously considered.
Studies show that battery manufacturing can have serious impacts in terms of human toxicity or ecosystem pollution. On top of this is the need to monitor labour conditions in certain countries. Furthermore, analysing environmental impacts requires full knowledge of battery composition and manufacturing processes, but this information is difficult to obtain for obvious reasons related to industrial property.
Could recycling the materials provide solutions to limit these risks and impacts?
There are two main families of battery recycling processes, used separately or in combination.
- Pyrometallurgy, which destroys the organic and plastic components by exposing them to high temperatures and leaves only the metal components (nickel, cobalt, copper, etc.). These are then separated by chemical processes.
- Hydrometallurgy, which does not include the high-temperature stage. Instead, it separates the components only by different baths of solutions that are chemically adapted to the materials to be recovered.
In both cases, the batteries must first be ground to a powder. The two processes currently operate on an industrial scale in recycling LIBs for telephones and laptops to recover the cobalt they contain. This material is so precious that recovering it ensures the economic profitability of the current LIB recycling sector.
But as the LIB technologies used for EVs do not all contain cobalt, the question of the economic model for recycling them remains unresolved, and there is still no real industrial sector for recycling these batteries. The main reason is the lack of a sufficient volume of batteries to be processed: the widespread roll-out of EVs is relatively recent and their batteries are not yet at the end of their life.
Furthermore, the definition of this end of life is in itself subject to discussion. For example, “traction” batteries (which allow EVs to run) are considered unfit for service when they have lost 20 or 30% of their capacity – which corresponds to an equivalent loss in the vehicle’s autonomy.
Can EV batteries have a second life?
There is a debate around a potential “second life” for these batteries, which would make it possible to extend their use and thereby reduce their environmental impacts. The first issues for this relate to the reconfiguration needed for batteries and their electric monitoring mechanism. Next, applications must be identified for these batteries with “reduced” capacity. They could be used for energy storage connected to the electricity network, as many experiments have been run in this area.
However, a major player such as RTE, the operator and manager of France’s electricity transmission network, believes that this application is ill-suited, functionally and economically, and recommends recycling EV batteries at the end of their first life instead.
Setting up a recycling sector that can adapt alongside evolving technologies
Establishing a recycling sector will also require an economic model capable of adapting to the range of battery technologies, without having to use a large number of different recycling processes.
Lastly, it must be noted that these environmental impact and recycling issues are not simple to tackle, as the technologies have not yet reached maturity and their long-term sustainability is not yet guaranteed. LIBs evolve very quickly – with lithium-metal battery technologies now being designed, for example – and we are even seeing the arrival of competing technologies without lithium, such as sodium-ion.
For all these reasons, the environmental, economic and social impacts of manufacturing and recycling EV batteries and their materials must continue to be studied. It is essential to keep applying grassroots and legislative pressure to obtain transparency around manufacturing processes, so that we can quantify their impacts and identify ways to limit them. Forthcoming European research programmes are also positioned in this area, including the environmental dimension of new battery development.
However, we should not just sit around waiting for some miraculous, clean, high-performing and cheap battery technology, which is more like a pipe dream. It is important that we slow down the growth in EV battery size, and therefore limit the power, mass and autonomy of the vehicles themselves.
This means we will need to rethink how we get around – leaving the car-based model – rather than seeking to replace one kind of technology (the combustion motor) with another (the electric motor).