Can Electric Vehicle Batteries Be Recycled?

electric vehicle batteries

The planned growth of electric mobility will increase demand for batteries, with the International Energy Agency estimating that between 2019 and 2030, demand for electric vehicle batteries will increase 17 times.

What Resources Are Involved? What Are The Environmental Impacts Of Their Mining? Can They Be Recycled?

When considering the LIB materials currently used in the vast majority of electric vehicles, the first thing to know is that there are several types of battery technology. Although they all contain lithium, the other ingredients are different:

Phone or computer batteries contain cobalt, while car batteries may contain cobalt along with nickel or manganese, or not at all in the case of iron-phosphate technology.

The exact chemical composition of these archival ingredients is difficult to determine as it is a trade secret. In addition, improvements are regularly made to batteries to increase their performance, so their chemical composition changes over time.

In any case, the main materials used to produce LIBs are lithium, cobalt, nickel, manganese, and graphite. All of these have been identified as materials with supply and environmental risks.

The Question Of The Supply Of These Materials Is Complex:

On the one hand, the value of the reserve depends on geopolitical considerations and developments in mining technology; on the other hand, material requirements are very sensitive to hypothetical projections (number of electric vehicles and battery size).

What Are The Environmental Impacts? 

Perhaps even more important is the environmental impact of battery production. Even if enough materials are available, the impact of their use must be seriously considered.

Studies show that battery production can have serious toxic effects on humans or pollute the ecosystem. Add to that the need to monitor working conditions in some countries. 

Furthermore, the analysis of environmental impacts requires perfect knowledge of the battery’s composition and manufacturing process, but this information is difficult to obtain for obvious reasons related to ownership. industrial property.

The art of metallurgy destroys organic and plastic components by exposing them to high temperatures and leaving only the metal components (nickel, cobalt, copper, etc.). They are then separated by chemical processes.

Hydrometallurgy, Excluding The High-temperature Stage.

Instead, it simply separates the components by means of different baths of solutions that are chemically adapted to the recovered material. In both cases, the pile must first be sprinkled with powder. Both processes are now working on an industrial scale by recycling LIBs from phones and laptops to recover the cobalt contained in them. This material is so precious that its recovery ensures the economic profitability of the current LIB recycling sector.

But since the LIB technologies used for EVs do not all contain cobalt, the question of the economic model for recycling them remains open and there is still no real industrial area for recycling these materials. The main cause is the lack of sufficient battery capacity to handle:

The widespread deployment of electric vehicles is relatively recent and their batteries are not yet at the end of their life. Furthermore, this very definition of the end of life is the subject of discussion.

For example, “traction” batteries (which enable electric vehicles to operate) are deemed unsuitable for use when they have lost 20 or 30 percent of their capacity – equivalent to a loss of vehicle autonomy. 

Can Electric Vehicle Batteries Have A Second Life?

There is a debate surrounding the potential “second life” for these batteries, which would allow for extended service life and therefore reduce the impact on the environment. 

The first challenge to this concern is the necessary reconfiguration of the batteries and their electrical monitoring mechanisms. Next, you need to define an application for these “reduced” batteries. 

They can be used to store energy connected to the electrical network, as many experiments have been carried out in this area.

For example, some EV batteries can be reused on solar farms – an economic and environmental model that is widely debated. Here, is the battery of the eMini. Taking place in Ireland/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Establish A Recycling Sector That Is Resilient To Changing Technology

Establishing a recycling sector will also require an economic model that is adaptable to a wide range of battery technologies without having to use a large number of different recycling processes.

Finally, it should be noted that these environmental impact and recycling issues are not easy to grasp as the technology is not yet mature and their sustainability is not guaranteed. LIB is evolving very rapidly – ​​for example, with lithium-metal battery technologies currently being designed – and we are even seeing the emergence of competitive lithium-free technologies, such as sodium ion.

For all these reasons, the environmental, economic, and social impacts of the production and recycling of EV batteries and their materials must continue to be studied. 

It is essential to continue to apply widespread and regulatory pressure for transparency around manufacturing processes so that their impact can be quantified and ways of limiting them.

Further European research programs are also positioned in this area, including the environmental aspect of the development of new batteries.

However, we shouldn’t sit around waiting for some magical, clean, high-performance, low-cost battery technology that looks like a pipe dream. 

It was important that we slow the growth in the size of the EV battery, thereby limiting the capacity, mass, and range of the vehicle itself.

This means we will have to rethink the way we move – away from the car-based model – instead of finding ways to replace one technology (the internal combustion engine) with another (the dynamics).