Battery recycling and electric vehicles

Yes, the reuse segment is currently in full swing in terms of revenue. Norvergence, through this blog post, provides information and estimates about the impacts of managing a large number of batteries for electric vehicles that enter the market and their role in the circular economy.

Electric vehicles are expected to increase from 2% of the global share in 2016 to 22% in 2030. Batteries play a huge role in the Electric vehicles and are the heart of the vehicle. Batteries are used in a multitude of applications including ICE vehicles. Battery operated EVs are also called as BEVs (Battery Electric Vehicles). ICE vehicles burn fossil fuel inside of a combustion engine, whereas Battery Electric Vehicles don’t have an engine.

In the case of Battery Electric Vehicles, the batteries must be able to withstand higher capacities & the wide-scale transition from ICE vehicles to EVs will require battery manufacturing at a completely different level. This raises many issues related to the environment and the carbon footprint of a battery’s journey from mines to the scrapyard. Let us look at these issues in detail.

Electric Vehicles were already being made in the early 1800s, according to Huei Peng, a mechanical engineer at the University of Michigan. The most widely used batteries today are Li-ion batteries and Li-ion batteries are also popular in usage for mobile phones and as traction batteries in EVs and ICE vehicles. EVs have already competed with ICE vehicles and have lost the game due to batteries. EVs face the two most basic issues created by batteries, i.e. range anxiety due to limitations of battery capacity and high upfront cost related to batteries and efficiency.

Figure 1 - Photo by Chad Russell from Pexels

We need to put in more batteries to solve these issues, thus creating a higher demand and end of life disposal worries. Li-ion the battery market is estimated to reach USD 77 Billion by 2024. Battery manufacturing also is environmentally sensitive and we must not forget it during our switch to clean EVs. Due to advancements in Li-ion batteries, EVs now have switched to these batteries instead of old cheaper lead-acid batteries. Due to the ambitious goals by several governments around the world to phase out ICE vehicles completely with EVs, there will be a surge in demand for Li-ion batteries which are already in high demand due to the mobile phone market, grid integration of renewable energy et.al.

The environmental impact of Li-ion battery manufacturing, if not curbed can be catastrophic for our environment and will negate any positive impact of the switch to EVs from ICE vehicles. The battery manufacturing operations also create lots of carbon dioxide in cases where the energy used for production is not from a clean source. Batteries that use cathodes with Nickel and Cobalt, as well as a solvent-based electrode processing were found to be having the highest environmental impacts. Impacts include resource depletion, global warming, ecological toxicity, and human health impacts.

Use of Nickel and Cobalt compounds for production and processing causes adverse respiratory, pulmonary and neurological effects in those exposed. Lithium is also a toxic material and is a risk to the environment and living species. The extraction of these rare earth metals at the end of a battery lifecycle reduces these life cycle risks. Recycling of batteries can enable risky metals like Cobalt and Nickel to be part of the circular economy.  The circular economy is a process of minimizing waste and making the most out of finite resources to achieve sustainable development. The below picture aptly describes the difference between a linear economy and a circular economy.

Catherine Weetman - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
Figure 2 : By Catherine Weetman - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=67945876

Integrating the end of life Cobalt, Nickel, and Lithium supply chains into the circular economy can solve the environmental issues associated with battery manufacturing and its usage. The barriers to effective recycling and putting back the end of life minerals back into the circular economy will require us to work on the following issues.

  1. Reducing conflict and corruption at extraction sites and holding mining companies accountable for unsafe working conditions.
  2. Raw material price fluctuations make manufacturing of battery a volatile business and must be taken care of by world governments. The fluctuations also provide opportunity for companies to substitute cobalt etc. with other low-value materials, making batteries not worthwhile to recycle.
  3. Designing of batteries without proper labeling can create issues during recycling and can make recycling business unviable.
  4. Regulatory issues, no collection infrastructure and lack of incentives to owners can also impede the growth of the battery recycling business.

Increased collaboration between all stakeholders in the battery value chain, Battery design incorporating eco-friendly recycling options, and consumer awareness can play a big role in ensuring a circular economy for the batteries.

In a nutshell, without the above issues addressed and mitigation practices mandated through government regulations, Battery manufacturers can take advantage of the EV boom and can neglect their responsibility towards the environment and planet. We as aware citizens must demand these features during our next purchase of an eco-friendly Electric Vehicle. Kindly share your thoughts about these issues by writing to me at research@anthropocenesolutions.org