As we move away from polluting petrol and diesel vehicles towards the new breed of electric vehicles (EVs), we are facing a challenging environmental question. What to do with their half-ton lithium-ion batteries when they wear out?
Lithium-ion batteries are used in a multitude of items, such as digital cameras, smartphones, remote control toys etc., and currently only around 5 percent of these are recycled. The International Energy Agency estimates there will be 125 million EVs globally by 2030, this could mean 11 million tons of spent lithium-ion batteries needing to be recycled between now and 2030. With rising ambitions to meet climate goals and other sustainability targets the number of EVs could rise to 220 million.
Life Cycle of Electric Vehicle Batteries
The current EV lithium-ion battery packs have an estimated life of 7-10 years, or around 150,000 miles. Higher powered vehicles and fast charging leads to a steeply increased degradation. For larger vehicles, such as buses and lorries, the replacement time will be closer to 3-4 years.
In addition to the obvious risk of giving off toxic gases if damaged, there is also the fact that core ingredients, such as lithium and cobalt, are finite and extracting them can lead to water pollution and other environmental consequences.
Recycling of Spent Batteries
There are EU regulations requiring battery makers to finance the costs of collecting, treating and recycling all collected batteries, and this is encouraging co-operation between carmakers and recyclers. In China, the government obliges automakers to pursue end-of-life strategies. However, in the US, the recycling industry is in its infancy but should get a boost from programs investing in the industrialization of the recycling of lithium-ion EV batteries.
Although the cost of fully recycling a battery is decreasing, the value of the raw materials that can be reclaimed is only around a third of the cost of recycling, so it is currently not an attractive proposition.
Investments are also made into reusing rather than recycling. Used car batteries can still have up to 70 percent of their capacity, which is not enough to power EVs, but after being broken down, tested and re-packaged, they can be used for other applications, like home energy storage, powering streetlights, etc.
Another option that is being pioneered is “wet-chemistry”, using a chemical process to retrieve all of the important metals from batteries for reuse.
It is clearly a major challenge for manufacturers and governments to work together to agree on best practices for recycling and/or reuse of these batteries. However, this is also a huge opportunity for companies to get a foothold in this fast-growing market and to help shape the future using cleaner and more environmentally friendly technologies.