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?
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.
The useful life of an EV battery is usually until it loses 20 - 30% of its original capacity. For a 100 kWh battery, a “dead” battery will still have between 70 and 80 kWh left - enough to power the average American home for about two days! Although the battery may no longer have the power to propel a car, it can be very useful as…a battery!
One of the most exciting uses for old lithium batteries is to store renewable energy to feed back into the electric grid when needed. Solar and wind power are amazing, but they are intermittent energy sources, meaning that at night, or when the wind isn’t blowing, there is no electricity being generated. Old EV batteries are the perfect solution. They can be hooked up to each other and can safely store unlimited amounts of energy. One company, B2U Storage Solutions, is using old LEAF batteries to store solar power and then resell it back to California’s electric grid when demand is high.
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 generation capacity. Battery storage can help by supplying 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.
However, all the novel uses above do not stop battery degradation. Eventually, the lithium ion battery will no longer be useful as storage. It is time to recycle it.
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. However, we want to be real about the effects that mining and battery production have on the environment. That’s why we also support battery recycling and the growth of that critical industry. Without it, EVs are merely a step in the right direction.
The Case For EV Battery Recycling
In theory, EV batteries are designed with 80% recyclable components. But in reality, both battery design, car manufacturing, and the recycling industry are a ways away from that. With millions of new EVs set to hit the road over the next decade, the need to address the industries’ shortcomings is strong. “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.” Moreover, sourcing these scarce materials from the ground is inevitably an extractive process that has profound and negative effects on the earth, the mine workers, and the communities where resources are located.
The corpus of EV research has strong evidence for the longevity of new lithium ion batteries. At worst, they can lose about 2% of their capacity every year, giving them a 10-15 year lifespan for use in cars. 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 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,” notes Jake Fisher, senior director of auto testing at Consumer Reports, in a report. “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," he adds.
But, with the scale of electric vehicles expected in the near future, there will still be a steady stream of batteries that have reached true end of life and must be decommissioned for all purposes: “roughly 600,000 metric tons of lithium-ion battery waste expected from the first generation of EVs by 2025 is set to grow to 11 million metric tons worldwide by 2030, according to the World Economic Forum.” 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. And, the recycling industry thrives on scale, so the more we invest in the technology and processes now, the greater the return.
Luckily, finding a good solution for lithium 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 and make them profitable. 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
First, let’s take a peek under the hood of EV batteries to understand the whole assembly. 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 their operational modules vary between products, 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. We’re talking thousand times the currents from regular smartphone batteries, to propel 2000 pounds of machinery at high speeds.
EV Batteries: Traditional Recycling Processes
As you’d suspect, the recycling value of an EV battery is determined by the real value of individual components. Recyclers won’t see much value in a component that costs more to recycle than to create a new one. The lithium and graphite components are the least valuable in a lithium-ion battery but they also dominate the equation. Cathode metals like cobalt and nickel are highly priced but usually few and far in-between, sometimes not worth the effort.
Recyclers use two techniques to extract cathode metals: pyrometallurgy and hydrometallurgy.
Pyrometallurgy is the more common method and bears similarities to extraction method originally used in creating the metals, “essentially treating the battery as if it were an ore,” according to Linda Gaines of DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory. 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 also working on solvents that can dissolve other 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.
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. The major concern for recyclers is safety and health risks, especially when dealing with high voltage, hazardous materials like those found in lithium ion batteries. Processes and factories can be designed around current battery specifications if all manufacturers agree to common designs, labeling, and the materials used to bind battery components.
In the EU, legislation is underfoot to jumpstart lithium ion battery recycling. First off, battery manufacturers and OEMs are now responsible for handling battery end of life 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. This step will regulate the reuse of battery material, create a market for the recycled materials, and help ensure recycling can be profitable.
Meanwhile, in the US, there are no regulations about lithium ion battery recycling, and, in fact, if someone wanted to recycle a battery, it would cost them quite a bit. These costs can be driven down, but it must start with regulation. Designing for recyclability along the supply chain requires collaboration between manufacturers to auto dealers, transporters, and recyclers. This coordination will not happen without an external impetus that incentivizes efficient recycling.
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.
Finally, as the market pushes EVs to reach purchase price parity with ICEs, battery makers are using cheaper materials by the day. While this is great news for consumers - and the planet - it means that recycling these less expensive batteries will net less money for the recycling companies. In the absence of regulation, this can disincentivize industry growth.
Here are a few other trends that we see in the battery recycling industry:
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 of DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory 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," she explains. 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.
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 European Union 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,” he adds.
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.