Recycling traditional combustion engine cars today is an environmental and economic success story.
After an old car lands at a scrap yard, as much as 95 percent of it is destined to be reused after it is recycled. This recycling process has evolved to be efficient and straightforward, as most of the vehicle is made of readily recyclable material like metal, glass and plastic. The move toward electric vehicles (EVs) is changing this equation, primarily because EV lithium-ion batteries pose numerous challenges surrounding how they will be disposed of and the materials necessary for their manufacture.
Lead-acid batteries used in gasoline-fueled cars today are nearly all recycled. EV batteries, on the other hand, are comprised of numerous lithium-ion cells which are encased or glued together in metal housings. EV batteries are designed, for practical and safety reasons, to be difficult to break apart. They contain hazardous materials which can explode if disassembled incorrectly. The EV batteries are comprised of valuable materials like cobalt, nickel, manganese and lithium, but in small quantities, making the labor-intensive work of dismantling the batteries not economical with the methods mostly used today. For these reasons, it is estimated that the recycling rate for EV lithium-ion batteries is less than five percent.
Despite the obstacles to recycling EV batteries, industry experts agree landfilling should not be an option.
The toxic materials in EV batteries will contaminate soil and groundwater. Another reason to keep EV batteries out of landfills is to be able to reclaim the batteries’ valuable metals and hopefully reduce the need for new mining. The metals used in EV batteries make new mining problematic. Currently, most of the mining for these materials is done in Indonesia, Russia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Two-thirds of the world’s cobalt supply is in Congo. These mining locations have poor environmental practices and lax labor standards that raise concerns about the environmental and societal costs of mining. According to the World Economic Forum, some of these metals could also face a global shortage due to the expected battery demand in the coming decade.
- Pyrometallurgy – This method extracts metals from the battery using very high heat in a blast furnace. Currently the most common type of lithium-ion battery recycling, during pyrometallurgy recyclers first mechanically shred the battery cells and burn them, leaving charred debris of plastics, metals and glue. At that point, additional processes including further burning extract the valuable metals from the charred mass.
- Hydrometallurgy – During this process, after the cells are disassembled, battery materials are dunked in pools of acid to extract valuable metals. Sometimes these two methods are combined.
“Direct recycling” may be a cleaner and more efficient method of recycling EV batteries, according to a recent National Geographic article. This method, still in the early stages of development, would not extract individual metals from a depleted battery. Instead, it would separate out cathode material from individual battery cells and rehabilitate the mixtures of chemicals inside of them, including adding lithium back into an old battery. This would preserve the value of the raw materials inside the battery and the value of the existing battery structure itself.
Recyclers are looking to use automation and robotics in these processes. Automation would remove the danger of toxic exposure to the labor force and would make the process more economically efficient. Another possible solution is to engineer the batteries so they use less of these metals which are scarce, expensive, and must currently be mined.
Industry and government efforts are underway to address these challenges.
At the Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois, there is a federally funded lithium-ion battery recycling initiative called ReCell. Run by the U.S. Department of Energy, it is a collaboration of government, academic and industry labs that is working to make the battery recycling process profitable by recovering the high-value metals. ReCell is seeking to design processes that improve yield and productivity, making it more economically feasible to recycle EV batteries.
Redwood Materials is a company located near Reno, Nevada, that is seeking to become the world’s top battery recycling company. Founded by a former Tesla executive, Redwood uses a combination of pyrometallurgy and hydrometallurgy to reclaim cobalt, copper and nickel from end-of-life batteries. Li-Cycle is a Canadian-based battery recycling company that bypasses the burning process and uses only chemical leaching to recover the metals.
In addition to being recycled, EV batteries can also be reused.
According to an online article in Nature, after ten years, when a car is likely to be scrapped, an electric car battery will have lost only about 20 percent of its capacity. Old EV batteries can be used as stationary energy storage for wind or solar power or be used to powerboats.
At some point, industry experts predict pure volume will help resolve this issue. In about a decade, once millions of EV batteries reach their end of life, economies of scale will kick in, making it more economical to recycle. The safest way to ensure a ready supply of new batteries is to recycle the old batteries. This will make recycling plants the true urban mines of the future.
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