The global electric vehicle market has taken a huge leap forward in the past decade. Its global market size is projected to grow from 4,093 thousand units in 2021 to 34,756 thousand units by 2030, at a CAGR of 26.8%. As the market grows explosively, so does the pile of spent lithium-ion batteries that once powered those cars.
But what happens when a battery in your EV dies? Do you know the right way to get rid of it? What is the most sustainable option to address the issue?
After 8 to 12 years in a vehicle, the lithium batteries used in EVs are likely to retain more than two thirds of their usable energy storage. Depending on their condition, used EV batteries could deliver an additional 5-8 years of service in a secondary application.
When an EV battery reaches the end of its useful first life, manufacturers have three options: they can dispose of it, recycle the valuable metals, or reuse it.
Disposal of batteries
The handling of lithium-ion (li-ion) batteries during the end-of-life phase of electronic products requires additional attention. If batteries are handled incorrectly, there is a higher risk of fire, pollution and harmful effects to humans and environment alike.
Disposal most frequently occurs if packs are damaged or if they are in regions that lack necessary market infrastructure. In most regions, regulation prevents mass disposal. The batteries contain a variety of chemicals. Improper disposal has significant consequences, such as loss of (material) resources.
However, regular alkaline, manganese, and carbon-zinc batteries are not considered hazardous waste and can be disposed of with ordinary trash.
Other common single use or rechargeable batteries such as lithium and button batteries are recyclable, but access to recycling may not be available in all locations.
Second life stands out as a significant option
If we want to do more with the materials that we have, recycling shouldn’t be the first solution, said James Pennington, who leads the World Economic Forum’s circular economy program.
The best thing to do at first is to keep things in use for longer
EV batteries have a tough life. Subjected to extreme operating temperatures, hundreds of partial cycles a year, and changing discharge rates, lithium-ion batteries in EV applications degrade strongly during the first five years of operation and are designed for approximately a decade of useful life in most cases. Yet, these batteries can live a second life even when they no longer meet EV performance standards.
Reused or “second-life” lithium-ion batteries still have a lot of juice left in them, but so far the concept of using these batteries in stationary applications has yet to gain real market traction. New research, growing automotive industry interest and an expanding startup ecosystem suggest that that could now finally be changing.
Several companies are running trials. The energy company Enel Group is using 90 batteries retired from Nissan Leaf cars in an energy storage facility in Melilla, Spain, which is isolated from the Spanish national grid. In the UK, the energy company Powervault partnered with Renault to outfit home energy storage systems with retired batteries.
Recycling of the batteries
When a battery really is at the end of its use, then it’s time to recycle it
Battery specialists and environmentalists give a long list of reasons to recycle Li-ion batteries. Up to 90% of the materials in batteries can be recycled, depending on the method. That’s why it is encouraged as much as possible. This is backed by the EU’s recycling regulations in 2012. In 2015, 41% of all batteries were recycled, compared to 25% in 2010 – a positive trend. In 2017, 61% of all batteries were recycled in Belgium. The more batteries are recycled, the less resources are wasted and the less materials end up in the environment.
If current trends for handling these spent batteries hold, most of those batteries may end up in landfills even though Li-ion batteries can be recycled. These popular power packs contain valuable metals and other materials that can be recovered, processed, and reused.
Lead-acid batteries, for example, enjoy high rates of recycling in part due to legal requirements – as much as 99% of lead in automobile batteries is recycled.
The Problems with Recycling
Lithium-ion batteries are rarely designed with recyclability in mind, said Carlton Cummins, co-founder of Aceleron, a UK battery manufacturing startup.
This is why the recycler struggles. They want to do the job, but they only get introduced to the product when it reaches their door.
The Li-ion battery industry lacks a clear path to large-scale economical recycling, battery researchers and manufacturers have traditionally not focused on improving recyclability. Instead, they have worked to lower costs and increase battery longevity and charge capacity.
Most of the batteries that do get recycled undergo a high-temperature melting-and-extraction, or smelting, process similar to ones used in the mining industry. Those operations, which are carried out in large commercial facilities—for example, in Asia, Europe, and Canada—are energy intensive. The plants are also costly to build and operate and require sophisticated equipment to treat harmful emissions generated by the smelting process. And despite the high costs, these plants don’t recover all valuable battery materials.
There are many reasons why Li-ion battery recycling is not yet a universally well-established practice
says Linda L. Gaines of Argonne National Laboratory.
Recycling holds a bright future
Until now, most of the effort to improve Li-ion battery recycling has been concentrated in a relatively small number of academic research groups, generally working independently. But things are starting to change.
Driven by the enormous quantity of spent Li-ion batteries expected soon from aging electric vehicles start-up companies are commercializing new battery-recycling technology. Recycling experts have begun forming large, multifaceted collaborations to tackle the impending problem.
At the same time, the DOE also launched the $5.5 million Battery Recycling Prize. The program’s goal is to encourage entrepreneurs to find innovative solutions for collecting and storing discarded Li-ion batteries and transporting them to recycling centers.
Recently, the researchers in the UK have also formed a large consortium dedicated to improving Li-ion battery recycling, specifically from electric vehicles.