The importance of recycling electric vehicle batteries

Beatrice Browning, PhD researcher at the Faraday Institution explains why we need to recycle lithium-ion batteries from electric vehicles (EVs). 

It is no secret just how important recycling is to combat pollution –  we need to recycle (and upcycle) to ensure that the earth’s finite resources are not completely exhausted.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has predicted that by 2030, the number of commercialised EVs on the roads will reach 250 million. As these EVs reach end-of-life it will become increasingly essential that we find a safe way to dispose of the mounting battery waste.

With regard to safety, incorrect disposal of lithium-ion batteries is extremely dangerous, unattended batteries with remaining charge can catch fire, in some cases leading to an explosion.

Lithium, nickel, manganese and cobalt are the main components of an EV battery, and their reserves are distributed in countries all across the globe. 

More than 65% of lithium reserves are found in just 5 countries, approximately 50% of which are found in the ‘lithium triangle’ – a region of the Andes where Chile, Argentina and Bolivia border one another.

Of these countries, Chile holds a staggering 26% of lithium reserves in the salt lakes known as the Salar of Atacama.

Europe holds very few reserves, meaning we are reliant on lithium carbonate exports.

As EV manufacture accelerates across the globe, the prices of these materials will increase as demand exceeds supply.

In order to reduce environmental penalties from international exportation of these materials, it is essential that we understand how to recycle and recover these materials properly. 

From an ethical standpoint, the recycling of spent battery material is also of great interest.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is responsible for approximately 60% of the world’s cobalt supply.

Despite the fact that the mining of this provides millions of people with an income, the cobalt extraction process has been associated with many ethical issues, including human rights exploitation, the use of child labour and fatalities.

These ethical drawbacks further highlight the requirement for battery recycling to diminish the demand for mineral exportation.

Current issues and possible solutions

Of all of the materials within lithium-ion batteries, cobalt is the most expensive material used.

As a result of this, in September 2020, Tesla announced that they intended to produce EV batteries with cobalt-free cathodes in order to ensure that they could manufacture commercial EVs at a competitive price.

If these competitive prices are enough to sway consumers, other EV manufacturers will inevitably begin to follow suit.

However, cheaper cell chemistries become problematic as the energy expended in extracting the metals from the spent batteries is greater than that recovered during recycling –  meaning that their initial value does not always cover these processing costs.

Recycling will only become cost-efficient when the value of the material is greater than the cost of recovery.

Another key reason for the lack of battery recycling infrastructure in the UK is that there are currently no incentives nor legislation in place to drive manufacturers to recycle batteries.

As pressure is growing for the electrification of the vehicle industry battery manufacturers are beginning to consider their cell and battery pack design with the interest of recyclability and waste stream management.

Currently, in EVs, Lithium-ion cells contain many different materials in a complex geometry.

Organisations, such as the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) are thoroughly involved in setting standards for the labelling of lithium-ion batteries in the hope that this aids standardisation of battery recycling, ensuring it becomes feasible.

Another organisation which is heavily involved in aiding recyclability of batteries is the Faraday Institution (FI).

The FI was founded in 2017 as part of the government’s industrial strategy – one of the eight main research disciplines of the FI is the battery recycling project (ReLiB), led by the University of Birmingham.

This project was set up in order to enable recognition of the conditions required to ensure the sustainable management of spent lithium-ion batteries from EVs.

The current challenges of battery recycling are being tackled by these organisations, who provide assurance that the UK is making progress in developing practices and infrastructure required for safe, cost-effective and sustainable recycling of lithium-ion batteriess from end-of-life EVs.

With the help of lawmakers and manufacturers working in conjunction with one another to enable optimisation of recycling infrastructure, we should be optimistic that a circular economy for lithium-ion batteries from is forming in the UK. 

Photo Credit – Pixabay

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