What happens to old EV batteries?
The only context that a lot of people have for lithium ion batteries - the sort of battery used in an EV - is that they are the same sort that power your laptop and your phone. And while these batteries are all the same type, EV batteries do not go bad every few years. They are built to last a lot longer than the battery in your phone or computer. Manufacturers guarantee them for at least 8 years or 100,000 miles, but it seems likely that the batteries built for electric vehicles today might work as long as 15 or 20 years. In fact, the battery packs themselves will last far longer than the rest of the EV, even if they no longer supply enough power to make the car run.
Still, some of the older EV batteries found in early LEAFs, for instance, are being replaced. What happens to the old batteries and what will happen as more and more EVs are on the road? One estimate is that the “United States will have about 80 metric kilotons of Li-ion batteries to recycle in 2030, while Europe will have 132 metric kilotons.” Do all these batteries become trash, or can they go on to live rich and successful lives?
The Current State of Things
First, it's worth noting that as of yet, this is no abundance of old, used EV batteries. As Nissan exec Nic Thomas told Forbes, “Almost all of the [electric car] batteries we’ve ever made are still in cars.” The automotive industry expects batteries to outlast the cars they are put in.
In August 2022, President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which provides incentives for both vehicle manufacturers and consumers to increase EV adoption. Included in this bill is the requirement that by 2027, 80% of the market value of the critical minerals in an EV battery must be ‘extracted or processed in the United States’ or a country with whom the US holds a free-trade agreement. Importantly, minerals recovered from recycling in North America also count towards this target, providing another route to reaching this challenging figure.
Before Recycling, There’s Reuse
EV batteries are material-intensive and potentially hazardous at their end-of-life (EoL) if not handled and processed with care. Repurposing and recycling batteries can reduce environmental and social impacts of battery production from virgin materials and provide a domestic source of raw materials. Over the short term, recycled materials only represent a small portion of total battery demand, but studies have indicated the potential to supply over 50% of cobalt with recycled material. Cobalt, in particular, is a critical material in lithium-ion batteries, and its mining is fraught.
When it comes to applications such as in cars, battery EoL is considered a 20-30% decrease from original capacity. For a 100 kWh battery, an EoL battery will still have 70-80 kWh of usable capacity remaining, or roughly enough energy to power the average American home for two days. Although the battery is largely useless for EV applications at this point, it is still very useful for other applications.
One of the most promising uses for old lithium batteries is large-scale battery storage systems. Renewable energy is a phenomenal option for energy production as we move away from oil and gas, but it is intermittent. This means that when the sun is down, or the wind isn’t blowing, no energy is being generated. Battery storage systems are an excellent way to capture the intermittent energy for future use. When storage systems are built of old batteries, they simultaneously reduce the net environmental impact of each battery.
In early 2023, B2U Storage Solutions, a leading provider of large-scale energy storage systems using second-life EV batteries, announced that their SEPV Sierra hybrid solar & storage facility was operational. This 25 MWh facility is located in Lancaster, CA and consists of 1,300 reused EV battery packs sourced from Honda and Nissan. The storage facility is interconnected directly to the grid, selling power and grid services into California’s wholesale power market. In addition to deploying Honda and Nissan EV batteries at scale, they have also successfully tested GM Bolt and Tesla Model 3 battery pack integration, demonstrating the ability of the system to operate with any EV battery.
Other companies are working to prove that used batteries can be useful in large scale scenarios. One such use is shoring up the US electricity grid, which has felt pressure in the past few years due to rising electricity demand and insufficient supply. Batteries can be used to supply stored energy when demand peaks, supplementing traditional energy plants and delaying investments in new ones until clean energy can fill the void. In Japan, Nissan is repurposing old batteries as backup power for train signals and to power street lights with solar energy generated during the day. Another project in France uses old EV batteries to power a data center.
Unfortunately, all the uses above do not stop the slow march of battery degradation. Eventually, the lithium ion battery will no longer be useful. At this point, it is time to recycle it.
Interesting note: One less common use for older EV batteries is education. We went to Massachusetts to talk with the owner of an acclaimed EV repair shop, Leo & Sons, which donates a lot of older batteries to programs that train and educate future EV technicians. Read more about the work they do.
Did you know that the creamy inside of a KitKat is made up of other, crushed KitKats? Soon, lithium ion batteries may be made up of old lithium batteries, too! Battery recycling is already taking off, especially as the price of lithium and other metals rise in anticipation of a booming battery market.
The Case For EV Battery Recycling
A popular theory against the EV movement is the idea that EVs are as “dirty” as ICE vehicles when it comes to the extraction, transportation, and conversion of battery materials. And it’s true that mining, processing, and shipping these battery minerals are detrimental to the environment, including air, water, and soil quality. There are also associated carbon emissions. Additionally, there is concern about how these materials will be used after production and use.
In theory, EV batteries are designed with 80% recyclable components. However, in reality, battery design, vehicle manufacturing, and the recycling industry are not at this point. With the renewed EV incentives and increased demand, it is critical to get the battery recycling industry up to speed. “The projected demand trajectory for minerals used to make EVs and batteries is particularly dramatic — a greater than thirtyfold increase from today to 2040, with lithium demand growing more than fortyfold in the same timeframe.”
Years of EV research has produced strong evidence for the longevity of lithium-ion batteries, indicating an average capacity loss of ~2% per year, yielding at least a 10-15 year lifespan for vehicles. Moreover, many battery packs can be rejuvenated by replacing individual cells, and many others can be repurposed for use in energy storage, backup power, or other stationary use for another decade past their transportation use. Many experts, such as Jake Fisher, senior director of auto testing at Consumer Reports, are upbeat:
"Electric car batteries aren’t very difficult to get rid of because even if they’ve outlasted the usefulness for an electric car, they’re still worth quite a lot to someone...there’s a strong demand for secondary-life batteries. It’s not like when your gas-powered engine dies and it goes to the scrapyard."
With the scale of electric vehicles expected in the near future, there will still be a steady stream of batteries that have reached EoL and must be decommissioned. According to the World Economic Forum, roughly 600,000 metric tons of lithium-ion battery waste is expected from EVs by 2025, and as much as 11 million metric tons worldwide by 2030. Clean energy and EV advocates need to ensure that this waste avoids the landfill, and that the raw materials in them are recaptured and reused. While it is projected that recycling can only offset 10% of the materials needed through 2040, that is still a start. Studies have indicated that recovered material from recycling is less environmentally intensive than producing material from virgin ore.
Luckily, finding a good solution for EV battery recycling is a solvable problem. We have the technology, but we need to refine it, scale it, and devise regulations and legislation to streamline the processes. In the remainder of this article, we examine the options currently available for EV battery recycling, from regulatory measures to innovations and everything in between.
EV Batteries: A Look Under the Hood
EV batteries are basically a pack of cells that interact to generate energy. They can be anywhere from a few dozens to thousands of individual cells.
Cell components and battery configurations vary between manufacturers, but lithium-ion batteries are generally composed of lithium, a graphite anode, and a cathode sheet of either nickel-cobalt-aluminum or iron-phosphate or nickel-manganese-cobalt composite. Lithium atoms travel in an electrolyte base between a carbon or graphite anode and a cathode sheet, generating electric currents that power the car and all its amenities.
EV Batteries: Traditional Recycling Processes
As you’d suspect, the value of a recycled EV battery is determined by the value of individual components. Recyclers won’t see much value in a component that costs more to recycle than to buy new. The lithium and graphite components are the least valuable parts of a lithium-ion battery, but they also the biggest percent. Cathode metals like cobalt and nickel are highly priced but usually few and far in-between.
Recyclers utilize three major recycling processes:
- pyrometallurgical, and
Importantly, the cost and environmental impact of recycling is a function of where recycling occurs, which includes the specific location of recycling and mode of transportation, an aspect that has historically been overlooked in lithium-ion battery EoL cost estimates.
For instance, recycling in the US has been found to result in less pollution than recycling in China due to shorter transportation distances and a less fuel intensive electricity grid. Unfortunately, recycling costs, which include transportation, collection, disassembly, and actual recycling, are much cheaper in China given the lower cost of labor and equipment costs. Incentivizing recycling in the US, where the process is cleaner, is important.
Pyrometallurgy is the more common method of battery recycling and bears similarities to the extraction method originally used in creating the metals. Linda Gaines of DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory explains that pyrometallurgy is,
“essentially treating the battery as if it were an ore.”
The cells are shredded and then burnt, leaving charred rubbles of plastic, metals, and glues, after which several extraction methods can be used to remove the metals.
Some major downsides of this method include the energy-intensive burning as well as safety concerns about burning toxic substances. Recyclers need to be certain of each battery’s composition and its active components to safeguard against health threats.
Hydrometallurgy entails dissolving the battery in a pool of acid. The valuable components can be extracted from the layered pool of metals and plastics. While it’s less likely to lead to violent explosions than pyro, the toxic chemicals used can pose serious health risks.
Overall, hydrometallurgy is a lot more efficient in extracting metals compared to incineration. Researchers are working on solvents that can dissolve some battery components while leaving the valuable metals in their solid state, making it easier to recover them. Some recyclers also combine both hydrometallurgy and pyrometallurgy, since many factories are already set up for pyro.
Direct recycling is a mostly untested technique that has great mass appeal. It keeps the cathodes intact, making it much easier to reprocess them into new products. Linda Gaines explains,
"In direct recycling, workers would first vacuum away the electrolyte and shred battery cells. Then, they would remove binders with heat or solvents, and use a flotation technique to separate anode and cathode materials. At this point, the cathode material resembles baby powder."
Researchers are still trying to make the technique viable at scale.
Although direct recycling would make it much easier to recycle batteries, it still requires recyclers to know exactly what the components of each battery are. Also, the economic viability of direct recycling depends on the value of the cathode metals. With lower prices cathode materials, battery recycling may be slow to catch on.
An important and uncertain variable in future material recovery is the mix of recycling processes in operation. Pyrometallurgical recycling does not recover lithium and therefore is being phased out in the US. Additionally, direct and hydrometallurgical recycling recover more material than pyrometallurgical recycling, offsetting the need for more new material and the associated emissions. However, it is important to note that none of these processes are emission-free.
Regulatory Requirements for Scale
Lead acid battery recycling is considered a major success story in the US, and it can be used as a case study for how to increase lithium battery recycling. Today, 99% of all lead acid batteries are recycled, and that is due to governmental regulation and subsequent design choices by manufacturers. First, it became illegal to have lead acid batteries in landfills. Then, knowing that their products would need to be recycled, battery manufacturers began standardizing the design and components of their batteries, so that recycling would be easier and more streamlined. Finally, lead acid battery recycling became profitable.
The standardization of lead acid battery design was a big step that allowed the recycling industry to scale. With lithium ion battery recycling, the major concern is safety and health risks, especially when dealing with high voltage. If all manufacturers were to agree to a common design, labeling, and binding materials, processes and factories can be designed to be more efficient and streamlined.
Recycling in the EU
In the EU, legislation is underfoot to jumpstart lithium-ion battery recycling. First off, battery manufacturers and OEMs are now responsible for handling battery EoL in a way that meets strict environmental and health standards. Since recycling is now their problem, manufacturers are sure to design batteries to make it easy.
Secondly, starting in 2027, new lithium-ion batteries must have a minimum amount of recycled components, meeting a recycled content standard (RCS). RCSs mandate a percent of constituent material in a product to be from recycled sources, which can increase recycling rates by creating a market for the reclaimed material. This step will regulate the reuse of battery material, create a market for the recycled materials, and help ensure recycling can be profitable.
An interesting fall out from the EU legislation may be that global automotive manufacturers have to accelerate their recycling in countries outside of the EU, too. If they want to sell in the EU, which is a large market for EVs, manufacturers will have to have robust recycling and reuse plans in place to meet strict standards.
Recycling in the US
The US has implemented this type of standard for the newsprint, plastic, and glass industries (Aunan and Martin, 1994), but has not passed or proposed RCSs for lithium-ion batteries. In 2019, the State of California’s Assembly passed Bill No. 2832, which created a stakeholder advisory group tasked with recommending policy to the 2022 legislature that will lead to as close to 100% reuse and recycling as possible of EoL EV batteries. In September 2022, California passed Bill No. 2440, requiring battery producers to create or fund programs for collecting and recycling most batteries sold within California, beginning no later than April 1, 2027.
One of the major goals of the IRA is to increase the sustainability of EV batteries and enhance the security of mineral supply. Unfortunately, given the current lack of infrastructure and technology for efficient EV battery recycling, it is unlikely that recycling will be sufficient to meet the 2027 mineral targets. This means that manufacturers will lean towards virgin mineral supplies rather than recycling, given the cost and accessibility. Additionally, the market value of recycled minerals is likely to be less than that of virgin minerals, disincentivizing the use of recycled minerals despite potential availability.
Here are a few other trends that we see in the battery recycling industry:
Technologies for Dissolving Binders
Tesla's cells are unique for many reasons, including the nearly indestructible polyurethane cement that binds them together. In order to dissolve them, highly toxic solvents must be used. These solvents are so toxic that one such is severely restricted by the EU and the US is currently considering a similar ban too.
To minimize the need for toxic gum dissolvents, researchers are currently working on glues resembling those of "a Christmas cracker, a U.K. holiday gift that pops open when the recipient pulls at each end, revealing candy or a message." A good example is the Blade Battery, a lithium ferro-phosphate battery released last year by BYD, a Chinese EV maker. It has fewer components, doing away with operational modules and storing just flat cells that aren't tangled up in wiring and glues. Notably, it was developed as a result of Chinese regulations, which have led to more lithium-ion batteries being recycled in China than the rest of the world put together.
Although large scale lithium ion battery recycling poses health hazards, they can be contained when recycling is approached with the correct knowledge. ”Education and accessibility are two of the most effective tools to ensure safety, especially as batteries grow in physical size,” says Leo Raudys, CEO of Call2Recycle - a platform that matches EV owners with recyclers - during an interview.
“As we know, Li-ion batteries can cause dangerous fires if not handled properly, endangering waste workers, residential communities, and entire recycling facilities. Continuing to streamline guidance on collecting, transporting, and recycling these batteries for both consumers and producers will help decrease safety risks."
Platforms like Call2Recyle have sprung up recently to breach gaps between various stakeholders. They’re aiming to strengthen collaborations within the space to prevent the green movement from losing momentum due to poor communication and lack of accessibility.
The ultimate challenge is creating a unified recycling ecosystem that gives everyone easy access to safe, viable recycling options. Collaboration in the space is growing by the day between governments, manufacturers, recyclers, and everyone in between, but the US lags behind other markets in terms of government regulation. As investments continue to pour into the space, we're witnessing a steady rise in the levels of education, accessibility, innovation, and efficiency. The EV space is still relatively underdeveloped, but with planning, the recycling industry can meet the needs of the future.