Almost 33,000 pure electric cars were sold between January and December 2019. That doesn’t sound like much, but it’s an increase of 136% on the same period in 2018, and the number of battery cars – pure electric, plug-in hybrid and full hybrid alike – looks set to continue the rapid rise.
That’s especially so if the government’s intention to have every new car offering plug-in electric running by 2040 is to be realised. While this would be an environmental win on most counts, there is an often-overlooked ecological burden associated with electric cars: the batteries. What do we do with them when they reach the point that they need to be re-used or recycled?
CAR BATTERIES AS POWER STORAGE
One popular solution is to re-use the batteries as power storage for domestic and commercial buildings. In the last year, Nissan launched the largest power storage facility in Europe to use both new and used car batteries; the Johan Cruijff ArenA in Amsterdam uses 63 second-hand EV battery packs and 85 new battery packs, which feed off 4,200 solar panels on the stadium roof and act as a back-up power source to reduce the strain on the electricity grid at peak hours.
Nissan also offers a power storage unit called xStorage that does the same job on a smaller scale for home use; a rival to Tesla’s Powerwall 2 system, although Nissan’s is the only option to offer a choice of new or used lithium-ion batteries.
WHY USE COBALT?
Even so, energy storage is far from a one-shot solution for the used EV battery issue. Some don’t think it’s a solution at all.
Transport applications require a very energy-dense battery to provide the necessary range from a comparably small cell. To achieve that small-but-powerful combination requires large quantities of cobalt and lithium in the lithium-ion batteries that are the chief technology powering electric cars today.
MINING COBALT AS A CRITICAL ISSUE
The mining of cobalt is a critical issue in battery production. Much of it is sourced from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the mining process raises serious ecological and human rights concerns. Reducing dependency on it as demand for batteries rises, and making best use of the cobalt already in circulation, is a critical factor in battery production and re-use.
Dr. Gavin Harper, a Faraday Institution Research Fellow at the Birmingham Energy Institute’s project on Recycling and Reuse of Lithium Ion batteries (ReLiB), said: “If we face constraints around cobalt, some feel we should focus this precious resource on more demanding applications such as EVs. It may make more economic sense to recycle EV batteries for use in brand new batteries for cars, rather than using them in a used state in a less demanding application such as power storage.”
METALS AS INFINITELY RECYCLABLE
Another significant consideration for EV batteries is the recycling process. Belgium-based company, Umicore, already offers recycling for lithium-ion batteries. The plant can currently recycle around 35,000 EV batteries per year and, according to a company spokesperson, “can easily scale up its recycling activities when the market grows, which we expect to happen in 2025.”
Even better, metals are infinitely recyclable, so they can be reclaimed from used batteries and used to produce new batteries that are as good as any other.
TESLA AND BATTERY RECYCLING
Tesla is open about its intentions to recycle its batteries, to the point where reclaimed metals from its used batteries would negate the need to mine new metals. Tesla’s then Chief Technical Officer, JB Straubel, said in 2018 that Tesla is “developing more processes on how to improve battery recycling to get more of the active materials back. Ultimately, what we want is a closed loop that reuses the same recycled materials.”
It’s heartening to know the technology needed to reclaim and recycle batteries – including the precious metals and plastics in the casing – already exists. In fact, it’s estimated that electric car batteries are already 90% recyclable.
However, there are still many areas for improvement, including the way we reclaim and transport damaged batteries. The electrolyte in batteries is highly volatile and makes the removal, transport and storage of used cells potentially hazardous. Working on ways to safely and efficiently manage this is one of the most critical aspects of successfully managing the quantity of batteries that will need to be recycled or re-used.
WHAT ABOUT SOLID-STATE BATTERIES?
Another consideration is changing battery tech. Gilles Normand, Senior Vice President of electric vehicles at Renault, recently stated that the company “could have cobalt-free, solid-state batteries on sale by 2025.”
This technology has great potential to reduce the environmental impact of battery production, and also promises less volatile battery chemistry. But what of their recyclability?
According to Peter Slater, Professor of Materials Chemistry and Co-director of the Birmingham Centre for Energy Storage, solid-state batteries “can be recycled but they would present different challenges in terms of separating the components. In particular, it is likely that it would need chemical separation routes rather than pyro-metallurgical process more commonly used now.”
KEEPING AWAY FROM LANDFILL
Ultimately, if the environmental implications of putting batteries into landfill isn’t persuasive enough, the other cold truth is that batteries and the metals they contain – regardless of whether it’s lithium-ion, solid-state or otherwise – are too valuable to waste. In essence, there’s serious money to be made in used car batteries.
So, while there are many and varied answers to the question of ‘where will the used EV batteries go?’, ecological and economic good reason are in agreement on this one: not into the ground.
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