As the electric vehicle (EV) market grows, it’s bound to create a booming recycling industry.
While most EVs have been around for less than a decade, analysts expect them to produce up to 200,000 tonnes of lithium-ion battery waste by 2040.
This situation will present new challenges concerning their collection, recycling, and disposal. The world will have to deal with a highly toxic issue if it doesn’t implement practical solutions. Proper recycling increases the environmental benefits of EVs.
Why Is It Essential to Recycle EV Batteries?
Li-ion batteries are the most expensive components of electric vehicles. These crucial parts also utilize a supply chain with far reaching environmental and human rights costs. Electric vehicle operations produce zero greenhouse gas emissions. However, their manufacturing process can account for up to 25% of the vehicle’s overall global warming emissions during its lifetime.
It’s crucial to keep lithium-ion batteries away from landfills due to their flammability and toxicity. Reusing and recycling them also contributes significantly to reducing demand for raw cobalt, nickel, and lithium. That’s because the extraction of these minerals has adverse environmental impacts. It affects local communities by polluting the air, soil, and water.
Essential Challenges to EV Battery Recycling
The chemical composition of EV batteries varies depending on the model. Although Li-ion batteries have had practical commercial use since the early 90s, the underlying technology is rapidly evolving. By 2030, they could have a significantly different appearance.
Another challenge concerns the lack of uniform shapes and sizes. EV batteries consist of individual cells organized in modules arranged in packs sealed with heavy-duty glue. These irregular form factors complicate the process of dismantling and recycling each battery.
In addition to taking hours, it raises the cost. Ultimately, new materials become cheaper than recycled alternatives.
Why It Makes Sense to Reuse Before Recycling
Batteries lose about 2.3% of their energy capability every year. Therefore, a 10-year old unit might still have as much as 75% of its initial storage capacity. Energy storage is a booming industry that repurposes these batteries once the EVs reach their end of life.
They are used for energy storage in residences, as backups to the electric grid, and as a power source for robots. Reuse can double a battery’s useful lifetime before it’s ready for recycling.
What Does EV Battery Recycling Entail?
Battery recycling occurs one pack at a time and begins by breaking the glues to retrieve individual cells. They are then dissolved in acid or burned. This step produces a sludge of potentially toxic by-products or charred materials. Burning utilizes high amounts of energy while using hazardous solvents.
Researchers are yet to perfect less harmful or low-energy options, including water. Presently, manual dismantling has a material recovery rate of up to 80%. This figure is higher than solvents or fire. Recyclers target the more valuable nickel and cobalt in EV batteries because graphite and lithium are readily available.
Emerging chemical compositions reduce dependence on cobalt. Although it might produce more effective batteries, it will deny future recyclers a vital income source. Another profitable aspect of the recycling process may involve retrieving the intact anode and cathode instead of dismantling them into components.
EV Battery Recycling Policies
Regulations already exist to guide the manufacture and recycling of lithium-ion batteries. It’s easy to expand these sufficient requirements to incorporate EV batteries. They include:
Proper labeling is essential to efficient recycling. A majority of EV packs lack crucial information about the chemical composition of the electrolyte, anode, and cathode. This situation complicates the process for recyclers.
Content labels on batteries can follow guidelines similar to the resin ID code on plastics. They’ll enable easier sorting and processing, ultimately increasing recycling rates and lowering costs.
It’s not easy to harmonize design standards in a budding and disruptive industry such as EV manufacture. However, they’ll eventually emerge either via government regulation or the efforts of industry players.
The electric vehicle market can take notes from successful recycling solutions in other mature markets. Apart from lead-acid batteries, they include aluminum, glass, and car catalysts.
The heavy nature of batteries makes them expensive to ship. Therefore, it makes sense to manufacture them near car manufacturing facilities. In addition to reducing the overall cost of EVs, it will also lower greenhouse gas emissions during their life cycle.
Lead-acid battery recycling offers a model that EV battery producers, policymakers, and recyclers can emulate. More than 95% of lead-acid batteries undergo recycling, mainly due to harmonized manufacturing standards. The demand for foreign minerals will reduce because technologies will improve as stakeholders reap the benefits of cooperation.
Improving efficiencies between the manufacture and recycling of EV batteries is beneficial to the environment and the industry. It will make electric vehicles the most sensible and sustainable alternative to cars powered by fossil fuels.