Are Electric Car Batteries Recyclable? (Environmental Impacts Explored)

The Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) report forecasts the Electric Vehicles (EVs) to make up 32% of the world’s passenger vehicles by 2040. With a 63% increase in year-on-year sales, EV adoption is on an unquestionable rise. This increasing momentum of EV adoption also means that there would be a significant increase in the demand for electric car batteries.  

With electric car batteries having to be replaced every 7 to 10 years, what happens to these car batteries after their usage?

The good news is that it is possible to recycle electric car batteries. However, it is currently an expensive process that involves intensive manufacturing. There are also efforts to repurpose electric car batteries to extend their lifecycle and extract maximum value before recycling as well.

If these large and heavy Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries (weighing around 385-544kg) go unrecycled or unused, most of them may end up in landfill sites. Not only do the batteries have toxic chemicals that can contaminate landfills and groundwater, there is also a risk of “thermal runaway” where batteries heat up to the point of burning. Can you imagine huge car batteries exploding and starting a fire in landfills? It would be a disaster.

With such big Li-ion batteries, the onus of recycling car batteries is not on you. Instead, the responsibility of recycling these energy storage devices fall in the hands of the manufacturers and industry.

There are EU Regulations enforcing waste batteries producer responsibility. The regulations require battery producers to minimise the harmful effects of waste batteries and financing the cost of collecting, treating and recycling waste batteries.

It’s a Complex Recycling Process

The process of recycling the batteries is complicated. The difficulty in recovery lies in how the batteries are made and designed.

There is currently no standardised way for Li-ion battery manufacturing. Beyond the structure of batteries, the chemical components also differ across manufacturers. For example, while some Li-ion batteries use Lithium Cobalt Oxide (LCO) cathodes, some use Lithium Nickel Manganese Cobalt Oxide (NMC) for cathodes.

This varying physical and chemical composition in the Li-ion batteries makes it difficult to have a standardised way of recycling them. This poses an added challenge of identifying the type and composition of the battery before determining the recycling process – driving up the costs and complexity of operations.

The current Li-ion batteries are also not designed to be disassembled. They are made to hold as much energy density within a small amount of space. This often means that there are thousands of cells stacked together and packed extremely closely with sensors and other battery controls. Disassembling these tightly arranged components is a challenge and adds to the recycling complexity.

The recycling industry is stepping up to these challenges through innovation and new recycling processes. Research is being conducted widely to discover new ways of recycling these batteries such as modifications to conventional smelting processes, hydrometallurgy processing, and other novel methods.

Automating the disassembly process through the use of robots or collaborative robots (Cobots) also holds great potential in boosting recycling rates as these machines have the power to disassemble batteries at a faster rate. However, the problem of having standardized batteries to disassemble remains.

If there are international standards for designing and producing batteries with recycling in mind, automated disassembly and recycling can be drastically improved.

Designing for a more circular economy can bring huge economic savings to companies as they can use recycled old battery components as raw materials for newer batteries. Tesla’s long-term goal is to reuse recycled battery components and eventually cut the need to mine and import materials.

Curious about how batteries get recycled? Check out the video below! You’ll be surprised at how the process works.

Cost and Economic Viability

If designing for circularity helps cut raw material costs, why are manufacturing companies not recycling widely yet?

As of early 2020, the cost of extracting lithium from old batteries is around 5 times more expensive than the cost of obtaining mined lithium.

This is in part due to the complexity of the recycling process outlined above which leads to lower than optimal recycling yields of lithium-based batteries. With a lower yield, the revenue from the number of recycled metals that can be sold is also lower. This makes it difficult for recycling companies to pay for the collection, transportation and the energy-intensive chemical processes of the actual recycling. 

The large fluctuations in market prices of the raw materials such as Lithium and Cobalt also mean that these mined materials could always undercut the price of recycled materials and casts doubt on the profit-making potential of these recycling companies.

These factors, combined with the risk that the future batteries might be all manufacturing according to a certain standard but significantly different design, make the battery recycling business a risky one.

In short, recycling does not make economic sense at the moment as the option of purchasing new materials is a much cheaper and economically safer option than the cost of using recycled ones.

Fret not, the future seems brighter than the present. With enough scale and increasing regulations in the EV market, there will be more incentive and business opportunities for recycling companies to exploit the economies of scale.

The figure from Circular Energy Storage shows how the number of Li-ion batteries available for recycling will increase almost six-fold from 2019 and this itself provides a strong incentive for recycling companies to enter the market early to capitalise on the eventual increase.

Source: Circular Energy Storage.

Lead-acid batteries also stand out as an example of how scale and standardisation can lead to increased recycling rates. With regulations to ensure lead-acid car batteries were easily disassembled and the wide adoption of lead-acid car batteries in the past, the lead-acid battery recycling industry was not only profitable but had an excellent recycling rate.

In the US, nearly 100% of the lead in lead-acid batteries were recycled.

If Li-ion batteries were to follow the already proven path of lead-acid batteries, we might see the recycling rates for Li-ion batteries skyrocketing and reaching a circular economy faster than imagined.

Reusing and Repurposing Batteries

Recycling is not the only environmentally friendly option that exists when it comes to electric car batteries.

EV batteries are shown to have up to 80% of their capacity when they cease to be used for EV purposes. With such a large remaining capacity and potential, it is entirely possible to repurpose these batteries and reuse them for other applications.

Reusing these batteries allows companies to overcome the short-term cost of recycling while maximising the usage of the batteries by helping with storage and provision of energy for a range of other applications.

Nissan Leaf’s repurposed batteries are used to power streetlights in Japan and for home energy storage.

Toyota launched an initiative to power 7-Eleven stores in Japan using old EV batteries in Japan as well.

On the other end of the world, Renault’s batteries are repurposed to back up elevators in Paris while General Motors old Chevy Volt batteries are backing up its data centres in Michigan.

There are also opportunities for manufacturers to integrate Li-ion batteries with solar and renewable energy sources to turn in extra profits. The image below shows how EV batteries are being repurposed after their usage in cars.

While it might be fair to say that recycling rates of EV batteries are currently low, the increasing applications for them to be repurposed and reused is an encouraging sign as it allows us to extract maximum value from the batteries while the recycling industry develops.

With EV batteries being tested and used for a wide variety of applications around the world, there should eventually be no excuse for used EV batteries to end up in landfills without being repurposed or recycled. 

The future of EV batteries repurposing holds a lot of promise as the world is ramping up efforts to research and improve current energy storage methods as a solution to integrating renewables into the national grids. With more Li-ion batteries being able to be deployed for such purposes, the integration of intermittent renewable sources such as solar and wind might also be achieved at a faster rate. 

The Future of Recycling

With EU and China introducing regulations enforcing producers’ extended responsibility in recycling EV batteries and the increasing adoption of EVs, many companies, recyclers, and technology startups are investing heavily in research and innovation to find cost-effective and simpler ways to recycle.  

University of Birmingham’s ReLiB project is looking into automating the sorting, disassembling and recovery of valuable materials from Li-ion batteries.  

OnTo Technology aims to manufacture quality batteries with materials taken directly from used batteries without having to break them into individual components.

Li-Cycle is testing the commercial viability of a new recycling technology that hinges on a wet chemistry process to extract all the important metals from batteries.  

Umicore has a fully closed-loop recycling system for batteries where they save up to 70% carbon dioxide emissions during the metal recovery and refining process. Umicore also partners with many existing car manufacturers such as Audi and Tesla to create efficient recycling initiatives. For instance, Umicore replaces raw construction materials in cement manufacturing (which accounts for 5% of global man-made carbon dioxide emissions) with relevant secondary materials recovered from car batteries. This not only helps with repurposing recycled materials but also reducing carbon dioxide emissions in other sectors. 

The US Department of Energy launched a $5.5 million USD Battery Recycling Prize to source innovative solutions that could change the recycling game.

Aside from technological innovations, there is also room for business model innovations on how these batteries are more efficiently collected and transported. There might be a future where we see battery swapping stations at the manufacturers’ local service centres where entire batteries can get replaced in a matter of minutes while the old batteries are directly collected by the manufacturer and transported to recycling partners. This would not only improve convenience for drivers but also cut collection costs for companies.

The regulations also play a crucial role in this ecosystem. With international standards on battery design, labelling and specific recycling procedures, battery recyclers would be able to eventually exploit economies of scale. This is especially so since everyone is made to use the same rulebook for manufacturing and meeting specific standards.

With these efforts worldwide to ensure that we are ready to tackle the recycling problem as it evolves, we can be cautiously optimistic about the future of recycling car batteries and their environmental sustainability. 

Economic and Environmental Potential for Recycling Car Batteries

With electric cars holding a promise of a cleaner and greener future, car batteries currently play a major role in the increased emissions during the manufacturing stage. With their lifecycle of about 7 to 10 years in the car, having proper mechanisms to reuse and recycle them will ensure that we maximise the overall environmental potential of EVs.

While we have seen current recycling, methods are costly and complex, having standardised designs and designing with recycling in mind will enable the cost of recycling to be pushed down significantly.

If the industry can get recycling right, this not only signals huge cost reductions for EV manufacturers in the form of reusing raw materials, it also means that these raw materials stay useful in the ecosystem for a longer period.

Current mining of precious raw metals such as Lithium and Cobalt is an energy-intensive one that also emits oxides of sulfur which might lead to acid rain. Being able to recycle the metals in batteries will also lead to slower depletion of the precious raw materials and less environmental harm caused by mining.

With the global stockpile of Li-ion batteries expected to hit 3.4 million by 2025, there is as much an opportunity as a challenge. With increasing adoption and innovation in the scene, there is room for collaboration between various players to bridge the gap in extending the lifespan of these precious raw materials. 

Battery recycling is undoubtedly a key market in the coming decade and with more players moving in to take advantage of the economic opportunities, the future for recycling and reusing batteries looks bright.

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