As electric vehicles take off, we’ll need to recycle their batteries

The hundreds of EV (electric vehicle) models arriving in the next few years signal that the EV revolution is finally going mainstream. However, as this industry, which is vital to tackling climate change, matures, a new challenge arises: How can all of the minerals needed to make EV batteries be sourced?

The lithium, nickel, cobalt, and copper in these batteries were all extracted from the earth at some point. Today, much of that mining is concentrated in places like Russia, Indonesia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, places where environmental oversight is often poor, labor standards often decline, and the mining industry has historically fueled conflicts with local communities. With the number of electric vehicles on the road expected to grow from 10 million in 2020 to 145 million in 2030, the demand for battery minerals is expected to increase. Some industry watchdogs warn that the clean transit boom could spark a dirty mining boom.

To reduce the need for new mining, experts say we need to make EV battery recycling a lot better when they die. While a small number of EV batteries have already aged off the road, millions of tons of batteries are expected to be taken out of service in the coming decades. These batteries could provide a significant portion of the future mineral needs of the electric vehicle industry. However, better recycling methods and government action are needed to ensure batteries don’t end up in landfills.

“The way this has been flipped is,” We have to deal with these climate issues, develop new mines and get them out as quickly as possible, “says Payal Sampat, director of mining programs for the nonprofit environmental work.” And this is how it works the short-term planning definitely. But we have to find some thoughtful solutions to this problem that are very long-term. “

Break the battery

EV batteries are complex technologies, but essentially they’re no different from the lithium-ion batteries in your phone. Individual battery cells consist of a metal cathode (made from lithium along with a mixture of other elements, which may contain cobalt, nickel, manganese, and iron), a graphite anode, a separator, and a liquid electrolyte, which is typically a lithium salt. An electrical current is generated as charged lithium ions flow from the anode to the cathode.

One of these batteries is enough to power a phone. To run a car, thousands of cells must be bundled together – usually in a series of modules that are wired together to form battery packs and housed in a protective metal case. In total, these giant electrochemical sandwiches can weigh more than a thousand pounds each (the battery in the Ford F150 Lightning pickup reportedly weighs closer to 2,000 pounds).

Most of the valuable materials that recyclers want to extract are in individual battery cells. However, EV batteries are designed to last for many years and thousands of kilometers and not be broken down into their components. “For all sorts of good reasons, you don’t want them to fall apart in the blink of an eye,” says Paul Andersen, the lead researcher on the reuse and recycling of lithium-ion batteries at the Faraday Institution (ReLib) project at the University of Birmingham in Great Britain

In part because of the cost and complexity of dismantling electric vehicle batteries, today’s recycling methods are quite crude. After the battery has been discharged and the sturdy outer casing removed, the modules are often crushed and thrown into an oven. Lighter materials like lithium and manganese burn, leaving an alloy slurry that contains higher value metals like copper, nickel and cobalt. Individual metals can then be cleaned from this alloy with strong acids. These processes, known as pyro- and hydrometallurgical recovery, require large amounts of energy and generate toxic gases and waste products that must be recaptured.

While cobalt and nickel are often recovered at high rates, in most cases lithium is not valuable enough for recyclers to recycle. Often times, when lithium is recovered, it is not of the quality suitable for making new batteries.

In the future, there could be a cleaner and more efficient option: direct recycling or separation of the cathode material from individual battery cells and rehabilitation of the chemical mixtures contained therein, among other things by adding lithium that has been consumed from use instead of extracting individual metals from the mixture. While direct recycling methods are still in the early stages of development, this approach could one day allow recyclers to reclaim more materials in batteries and get a higher quality end product, says Gavin Harper, a research fellow at the Faraday Institution.

“You have value in the raw materials, but there is so much more value in the way those materials are combined,” says Harper. “That would be the kind of holy grail of recycling – to try to preserve the value that is in the structure, not just in the materials.”

Enlarge an industry

The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that the world currently has enough capacity to recycle 180,000 tons of dead EV batteries per year. By comparison, all electric vehicles commissioned in 2019 will ultimately generate 500,000 tons of battery waste.

And that’s only a year. The IEA estimates that used batteries worth 1,300 gigawatt hours could be recycled by 2040. In terms of bulk, Harper notes that an 80-kilowatt-hour battery on a Tesla Model 3 weighs just over a thousand pounds. If all of those dead batteries came from Tesla Model 3s, that amount of battery storage capacity consumed equates to nearly 8 million tons of battery waste – which, according to Harper, is 1.3 times the mass of the Great Pyramid of Giza.

If recycling can be expanded, this waste could be a significant source of minerals. In a sustainable development scenario where the electric vehicle market is growing at a rate consistent with limiting global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius, the IEA estimates that recycling will account for up to 12 percent of mineral needs by 2040 the electric vehicle industry. However, when the same climate scenario is combined with more optimistic recycling assumptions, recycling could play a much bigger role.

A recent report commissioned by Earthworks found that recycling could provide up to 25 percent of the EV industry’s lithium needs and 35 percent of cobalt, assuming 100 percent of dead EV batteries for recycling and mineral recovery rates, especially for lithium, to be collected and nickel demand by 2040.

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