We all know that electric cars produce zero emissions as they drive around. But the big question is how environmentally friendly is the production and disposal of their batteries? Happily, these products that power electric cars, can be recycled.
If it’s about the older-technology lead-acid batteries, 96% of the materials in the battery, including the lead, is recovered. Also, they can be recharged and reused before being recycled. The latest models, with their lighter weight and longer range, use lithium-ion batteries, just like laptops and cell phones. In either case, the batteries that power electric cars can be recycled.
Electric cars are the future. Sales of pure electric cars rose by nearly 14% in 2018 compared to 2017. The International Energy Agency predicts that, by 2030, the number of these vehicles will exceed 140 million. We must admit that for the environment and air quality is a win, especially as mains electricity is getting greener every year. But there is an environmental burden that often causes concern: the batteries. Right now, it’s estimated that as few as 5% of lithium-ion batteries are recycled. It is possible that by 2030, electric vehicles alone could leave up to 11 million tons of lithium-ion batteries which need to be recycled. Without action, we risk releasing dangerous toxins from the damaged lithium-ion batteries.
The volume of EV batteries that will need to be re-purposed or recycled is undoubtedly daunting. These batteries typically last around 8-10 years before their performance drops to around 70% (or less) of what it was when new. So, what can be done with these batteries when they reach the point that they need to be re-used or recycled?
Reusing batteries offers a popular solution while looking to improve recycling. For example, there are manufacturers which are using old batteries to provide new services. In Japan, Nissan repurposed batteries to power streetlights. Renault has batteries backing up elevators in Paris. Old batteries can also be useful for storing solar energy and backing up traditional electrical grids. The Johan Cruyff Arena in Amsterdam uses 63 second-hand EV battery packs and 85 new battery packs, which feed off of 4.200 solar panels on the stadium roof.
Used electric car batteries can re-use as power storage for domestic and commercial buildings. These products may provide a home energy solution to solve the potential issue of increased car charging putting too much strain on the mains power grid at certain times. Even so, static energy storage is no one-shot solution for where the redundant electric vehicle batteries will go.
What about recycling them?
When lithium-ion batteries reach a recycling plant, there are two ways to pulverize them. If they are complete without a charge, they’re simply shredded so that the metal components, like copper and steel, can be easily sorted out. In the other case, when the batteries could still possibly have a charge, they’re frozen in liquid nitrogen and smashed to frozen bits. The liquid nitrogen is so cold, the batteries can’t react, so the smashing is safe. Then the metals are separated out for reuse.
A smelting process is used to recover many minerals, but it alone can’t recover the precious lithium. After a battery is smelted, the lithium ends up as a mixed by product and extracting it is costly. More progress needs to be made to make extracting lithium from recycled batteries financially viable. Recycling EV batteries are difficult but not impossible.
A Belgium-based company, Umicore, is one of the businesses already offering to recycle for lithium-ion batteries. It reclaims valuable metals using a process based on the combination of pyro-metallurgy and hydro-metallurgy.
As the electric vehicle market continues to heat up, implementing best practices for battery recycling and reuse may well become a hot-button topic for car owners and policymakers alike. The European Union and China have already regulations which make automakers responsible for recycling batteries.
The reality is that the metals they contain are too valuable to waste. We can only be sure of one thing – these batteries can be put in the ground, unanimous from ecological and economic reason.