Electric cars look set to become one of the most influential technological revolutions of the 21st century. Millions of them are being driven around the world, and those numbers look set to increase almost exponentially. In light of this growth, people are becoming increasingly concerned about scrapping these vehicles.
It is possible to recycle electric cars and their batteries. However, recycling these batteries is a challenging process so the number of electric batteries being recycled is almost minimal. New approaches are being developed to improve the viability of recycling lithium-ion batteries.
The rest of this article will explore the subject of electric car recycling in detail. Primarily, I’m going to discuss the process of recycling an electric car, why it isn’t easy and what research is currently being conducted to make large-scale EV recycling a viable strategy.
- Recycling Electric Vehicles: A Summary Table
- Electric Cars Are a Nuisance When They’re Finished
- Why Are Lithium-Ion Batteries So Hard To Recycle?
- Are There Any Benefits to Recycling Lithium-Ion Batteries?
- What Is Being Done To Help This Industry?
- EV Speedy’s Take
Recycling Electric Vehicles: A Summary Table
To provide a flavor of what’s to come in the remainder of the article, I’ve prepared an ‘at a glance’ table.
|What percentage of EV batteries are currently recycled?||5%|
|How much does it cost to recycle an EV battery?||Tesla estimate it costs $4.50 per lb of battery weight|
|How long does an EV battery last?||Research suggests they will last for approximately 200,000 miles|
|How many people currently drive electric cars in the USA?||In 2021, less than 2% of vehicles are electric cars|
Electric Cars Are a Nuisance When They’re Finished
More and more people are choosing to drive electric vehicles. As such, people are starting to understand the critical differences between cars with batteries and vehicles with combustion engines.
One of the key differences between these types of cars can be seen when they have driven their last mile. For vehicles with combustion engines, the recycling process is relatively straightforward.
These cars are sent to a scrap yard and disassembled, with salvageable components being resold and the other parts being recycled.
For electric vehicles, this process is a lot more complicated. Electric vehicles are powered by lithium-ion batteries, a variety of notoriously difficult batteries to disassemble and recycle safely.
Why Are Lithium-Ion Batteries So Hard To Recycle?
At the time of writing, experts estimate that the current rate of lithium-ion battery recycling is approximately 5%. In other words, 19 out of every 20 lithium-ion batteries aren’t recycled. This is a very low number, but a variety of factors make the recycling process difficult.
The chemical composition of lithium-ion batteries can be incredibly complex. As their name suggests, these batteries all contain lithium. However, these batteries also have a variety of other different precious metals. Some of these metals include nickel, cobalt, and aluminum.
Different brands of lithium-ion batteries will contain varying amounts of these metals. While it’s an oversimplification, lithium-ion batteries are recycled by melting them down.
This melting process has to be designed based on the relative proportions of each metal in a battery. There are so many different types of batteries, so the industry can’t create a standardized recycling method for batteries.
An informative and detailed description of why it’s so hard to dispose of EV batteries is available within the following video:
Buying New Raw Materials Can Be Cheaper
This fact is another significant problem for the lithium-ion recycling industry. Decisions in business and life are heavily influenced by financial incentives. It would be illogical for a company to finance lithium-ion recycling if mining new materials are cheaper.
There’s no practical difference between recycled metals and freshly mined metals. They both function equally in a lithium-ion battery. Recycled metals are in no way sub-standard. Nevertheless, large-scale battery manufacturers aren’t going to throw away millions in revenue to accumulate environmental brownie points.
To make the recycling of lithium-ion batteries more common, the entire automotive industry needs to collaborate and discuss how to address this phenomenon.
Lithium-Ion Batteries Are Tough To Take Apart
For those of us who enjoy DIY tasks, this might be a little bit difficult to wrap your head around. More often than not, taking something apart is significantly easier than putting it back together again. Anybody who has ever had the pleasure of assembling flat-packed furniture will testify to this.
It turns out that the opposite is true for lithium-ion batteries. They’re incredibly difficult to systematically take apart, with the process being labor-intensive and costly.
The easiest way to understand a lithium-ion battery design is to think of a Russian Doll. As you continue to take it apart, you’ll find a structure nested within a structure. Unfortunately, this makes the process of carefully taking a lithium-ion battery apart very difficult.
When you consider that there’s an extensive range of different battery designs, you’ll understand why recycling electric vehicle batteries is so tricky.
The Goalposts of Battery Design Continue To Move
To justify the costly and difficult process of recycling lithium-ion batteries, recycled materials and precious metals need to be a useful commodity. This sounds like a strange statement because surely if the precious metals in a lithium-ion battery were useful before, then they would be useful again. As you may have guessed, it’s not quite that simple.
Both as an industry and as a technology, Electric Vehicles and Batteries are in their infancy. As knowledge grows and engineers refine their processes, the design of batteries may change. In other words, new precious metals may be incorporated, and others may be discarded.
What may have been an integral component of a previous battery may not be necessary in a future design. The rate of technological development in this sector means that nobody can be sure what the future of battery technology will look like.
In the face of such uncertainty, it’s difficult to get the support and financial backing required to set up recycling protocols and infrastructure.
Are There Any Benefits to Recycling Lithium-Ion Batteries?
I’ve established that the process of recycling lithium-ion batteries requires a lot of time, money, patience, and expertise. There are some skeptics out there who may believe that recycling these batteries doesn’t have any tangible benefits.
A range of different benefits justifies recycling lithium-ion batteries. Regulated recycling practices will ensure that battery disposal won’t harm the environment and the broader public while reducing our mining dependency.
I’m now going to explore the positive aspects of electric vehicle recycling in greater detail.
Battery Recycling Will Ensure That Batteries Are Disposed of Properly
Batteries only start to become a real problem when the electric vehicle has reached the end of its lifecycle. When this occurs, the battery will have to be disposed of if it’s not recycled. At this point, the blend of complex chemicals which was initially a friend of the environment can become an enemy.
The handling and disposal of lithium-ion batteries is a highly specialized task. If appropriate care is not taken, some of the batteries may become punctured and the contents may leak out. It has drastic environmental consequences.
The contents of a lithium-ion battery are highly toxic. If an old battery ruptures in a landfill site, the contents may seep into the surrounding environment and contaminate the soil and water supply. Such leaks are far from trivial, as they can destroy local ecosystems and wreak widespread havoc.
A formalized battery recycling procedure would help avoid accidents. There has been a spate of incidents reported where the improper disposal of lithium-ion batteries has led to explosions or flames in the area.
Recycling Will Reduce the Dependency on Mining
Some people believe that electric vehicles aren’t as beneficial for the environment as you may think. One argument that such individuals will make is that the process of mining precious metals from the earth is highly destructive.
This concern is admittedly legitimate. Researchers and investigative journalists are still learning about the damage that mining can do to the earth. Apart from being unsightly, there have been instances where mining has led to radioactivity emissions.
Mining these precious metals also incurs a high human cost. An inconvenient truth of mining precious metals is that it exploits people who live in abject poverty. The workers typically endure bad working conditions, and there have been reports of children as young as 7 being sent to work in the mines.
We should encourage anything to reduce our dependence on these mining practices. If battery recycling became the industry standard, there would be enough precious metals circulating to drastically reduce the need to mine new metals.
What Is Being Done To Help This Industry?
It appears that electric vehicles and battery technologies are here to stay in the years to come. Private companies have taken the lead in creating and developing these revolutionary products, but they can’t solve all of the world’s problems on their own.
Global Environmental Authorities, along with Local Governments, are working tirelessly to help the battery recycling industry build some momentum. The creation of a sustainable supply chain and the development of the circular economy will benefit everybody.
To showcase some of the work being done, I’m now going to explore two high-profile research developments.
The ReCell Center Is America’s New Battery Recycling R&D Institute
The establishment of the ReCell Center is the USA’s first bespoke Research & Development facility for recycling lithium-ion batteries. It involves collaboration between government researchers, academic institutes, and leading private sector companies.
The Department of Energy cited several motivations for the creation of this facility. Firstly, they wanted to decrease their reliance on foreign expertise. Secondly, they want to develop novel technologies to help solve the problem of recycling lithium-ion batteries. Finally, they want to explore how the process can be profitable, encouraging private companies to participate.
The Institute has explicitly outlined four specific research avenues that they aim to pursue in the coming years. If they’re successful, it will offer a major boost for the industry.
The ReLib Project Represents the UK’s Contribution to Battery Recycling Research
As per the Paris Agreement, the UK is legally obliged to achieve a carbon-neutral economy by 2050. This is a colossal task, and the British government has recognized the need to develop regulations and infrastructure which will ensure that the components of a lithium-ion battery remain in circulation for as long as possible.
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One of the Relib Project’s primary aims is to develop and implement alternative recycling strategies for lithium-ion batteries. It’s an interdisciplinary job, with scientists from Chemistry, Physics, and Biology coming together to brainstorm.
Preserving and reusing battery components already in use will help in the battle against environmental destruction.
The project also outlined a list of criteria that must be met if the project is successful. These include:
- The development of new technology to strip batteries in a quicker and safer manner
- Eliminate the use of chemicals in batteries where possible
- Create robots that reduce the need for human involvement
- Preserve high-value materials to help create a circular economy
French Nuclear Company Orano Launch Recycling Project
Orano, along with a consortium of partners, has launched a French-based initiative to develop an entirely new process for the extraction and purification of battery precious metals.
By combining their expertise, they’re looking to cover all parts of the supply chain, from the moment the battery arrives until the moment it leaves.
EV Speedy’s Take
Recycling batteries is all about preserving the precious metals contained within the battery. Different brands of batteries contain different chemicals and metals. As such, creating a single recycling process for all batteries is challenging.
Since battery recycling is hugely beneficial to the environment and the planet, companies are developing new recycling methods.
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