Leading the charge on recycling used electric vehicle batteries

Written by: Rebecca Currier | Published:
EV batteries’ real-world lifespan on UK roads is uncertain as the technology is relatively young. Image credit: Adobe Stock

Electric vehicle (EV) sales are soaring. On 13 April 2019 The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) reported that the number of plug-in electric cars grew by 76.6% in 2018, with 195,000 vehicles now on British roads.

This is part of a global trend with many countries including China, France, India, Norway and the UK announcing that they will ban the sales of new petrol and diesel cars and vans in the coming years.

But one big environmental question still has to be fully resolved. How will the lithium-ion (li-ion) batteries used to power electric vehicles be recycled?

Vehicle recycling firm CarTakeBack has a network of more than 300 recycling centres. It is currently handling a number of electric vehicles and is heavily involved in future planning for recycling these in greater numbers. There are key differences in the way petrol/diesel and electric vehicles are recycled, the most significant being battery recycling.

“Most of the automotive batteries currently used for petrol and diesel cars are of the standard 12-volt lead acid type,” explains Ken Byng, senior manager at CarTakeBack. “The lead is straightforward to extract and has a fairly consistent monetary value meaning that the costs involved in recycling them can generally be recouped.

"Lead acid batteries can be recycled in the UK. However, the majority of electric vehicles currently use high-voltage lithium-ion batteries to power their movement alongside the standard 12-volt lead acid batteries used primarily to maintain their safety systems. Unlike lead acid batteries they are expensive to safely recycle.”

The first stage in recycling the EV batteries is to remove them from the vehicle and into safe storage. This involves potential risks for scrap vehicle recycling centre staff. These include: injury during vehicle movement due to unexpected weight distribution; electrocution during dismantling; respiratory, skin or eye irritation from leaking electrolyte fluid; and even injury to staff who have pacemakers fitted (the powerful magnets used in EV components can affect the pacemaker).

“CarTakeBack has invested in training for its staff and network partners to enable them to safely handle electric vehicles,” says Byng. “It is important that the entire scrap vehicle recycling industry has the correct safety regulations in place and adhered to in order to protect their workers.”

Recycling the batteries

Everyday items such as smartphones and electric toothbrushes have small lithium-ion batteries but because of their size they are often thrown into general household rubbish and regrettably end up in landfill. Batteries used in electric vehicles are much bigger and of much higher voltage so it is especially important that they are correctly recycled to avoid damage to the environment. China and the EU have already introduced rules that make vehicle manufacturers responsible for recycling their batteries and the industry expects the US to follow.

Also the core ingredients of lithium and cobalt are both finite and difficult to mine. Improper mining processes can lead to exploitation of workers in developing nations, water pollution and other environmental consequences.

However, the process of recycling EV batteries is complex and expensive for a variety of reasons.

There is currently no UK-based recycling facility for lithium-ion batteries and they have to be exported to mainland Europe. This is a significant challenge as they need to be transported as hazardous materials under the Carriage of Dangerous Goods Regulations (CDR) in the UK and the International Carriage of Dangerous Goods by Road (ADR) in mainland Europe. This is both costly and complex in terms of customs regulations and necessary documentations.

Firstly lithium-ion batteries use a variety of chemical processes making it difficult to develop standardised recycling. “Everyone is using their own formulation,” says Linda Gaines, transportation system analyst at Argonne National Laboratory in the US. “Lead acid batteries are way simpler.”

Extracting lithium in a reuseable form is also challenging. While some recyclers use hydrometallurgy most recyclers heat old batteries to high temperatures to retrieve metals, a process known as pyrometallurgy.

But this generally only yields cobalt and sometimes nickel, while lithium is more difficult to extract. There is concern that the supply of lithium in battery-ready form will struggle to keep pace with demand as electric vehicle sales increase.

A range of companies throughout the world are rising to the challenge of EV battery recycling including Belgian company Umicore, American company Retriev Technologies, Australia's Neometals and Canadian start-up Li-Cycle.

Vehicle manufacturers are also looking at battery recycling. In a tweet in July 2016 Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk said the company's battery Gigafactory in Nevada 'will be fully powered by clean energy when complete and include battery recycling’.

However, investment bank Morgan Stanley has expressed concern that there is insufficient recycling infrastructure for when the current wave of batteries dies. “There needs to be more development to get to close- loop recycling where all materials are reclaimed,” states Jessica Alsford, head of Morgan Stanley's global sustainability research team. “There's a difference between being able to do something and it making economic sense.”

Francisco Carranza, energy services MD at Nissan, agrees. “The cost of recycling is the barrier. It has to be lower than the value of the recovered materials for it to work.”

Gavin Harper, a Faraday Institution research fellow involved in the Birmingham Energy Institute's project on recycling and reuse of lithium-ion batteries says that: “If we want to move towards a circular economy of batteries we need to 'design out' the recycling challenges.”

Byng agrees and adds: “There are projects such as VALUABLE in which various university researchers and industry representatives such as CarTakeBack are working on introducing 'cradle-to-cradle' solutions in design and manufacture of li-ion EV batteries, to ensure they can be more readily recycled in the future.”

Reusing EV batteries

While EV batteries’ real-world lifespan on UK roads is uncertain as the technology is relatively young, it is expected that, on average li-ion batteries will last between eight and 10 years before their performance drops to 70% or less of what it was when they were new.

Although no longer suitable for powering vehicles they can still be re-used as power storage for domestic and commercial buildings – storing electricity from solar panels and wind turbines and smoothing peak demand on electricity networks.

Much of the debate around the move towards electric vehicles has focused on motivating consumers to invest in the cars – whether that's via easing concerns about range, providing access to charging points, or grants to bring down the cost of buying an electric vehicle.

But it's clear that without effective plans for recycling these vehicles and in particular their batteries the electric vehicle revolution could stall. However everyone in the recycling chain from vehicle recyclers to manufacturers and independent companies in the battery recycling industry are working hard to come up with effective and economical solutions that will make the global transition away towards electric cars a smooth one.

EV batteries and Brexit

As one might expect, the current uncertainty around Brexit extends to electric vehicle battery recycling and much will depend on the nature of the eventual deal.

“CarTakeBack has been safely and successfully handling EVs and their batteries for several years now,” explains Byng. “We have developed secure relationships with industry-leading partners and believe we have 'futureproofed' our arrangements.

"However, we do believe that when it comes to transporting lithium-ion batteries for recycling to mainland Europe there is a risk that added layers of bureaucracy will be introduced into what is already quite rightly a tightly-controlled process.

“Should this happen we would expect to see increases in cost for what is even now an expensive operation as well as significant delays for transporting these batteries. We, along with most businesses involved in trading with our EU partners, will be watching developments closely.”

Rebecca Currier is press officer at CareTakeBack.

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