As the sale of electric vehicles (EVs) continues to flourish, concerns about the safe and judicious disposal of car batteries concern many car owners. On the other hand, the question in the minds of many environmental advocates is “are EV batteries bad for the environment?” Electric vehicles are a relatively recent innovation and recycling EV batteries is vastly different from the practices in place to discard traditional gasoline vehicles.
Fortunately, a lot of research has gone into recycling and reusing EV batteries, utilizing the existing infrastructures, and building newer facilities that can keep pace with the growing popularity of EVs. This article explains how EV batteries are recycled and the challenges faced by recyclers.
What Are EV Batteries Made Of?
Battery technology has evolved dramatically since the early 1800s, powered by Alessandro Volta’s revelation, which went against the widespread belief that electricity can only be generated by living beings. Modern electric batteries can store large quantities of energy that can be safely utilized to run electric vehicles, while making them easily manageable. The quick-charging capabilities developed in recent times allow car owners to cover vast distances without worry.
Today, almost all plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) and all-electric vehicles need energy storage systems such as batteries to run. While EVs have a battery instead of a gasoline tank — which is utilized by its internal combustion engine — PHEVs use both gasoline and electricity as fuel sources. PHEVs typically have a battery, an electric motor, a gasoline tank, and an internal combustion engine.
Most of today’s EV batteries are made of five elements — lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese, and graphite. These minerals are the building blocks of modern EV batteries that store energy and release it to drive electric vehicles.
Out of these, lithium-ion batteries are the most popular. Although called a lithium-ion battery, building one requires other elements as well. For example, one of the most widely used lithium-ion battery models, the NMC532, is made of four different elements. According to research, the NMC532 has an output of 94.5 milliampere-hours per gram of its mass after 150 cycles. To build such a battery, you’ll need:
- Lithium: 8 kilograms (18 pounds)
- Nickel: 35 kilograms (77 pounds)
- Manganese: 20 kilograms (44 pounds)
- Cobalt: 14 kilograms (31 pounds)
In addition to these, EVs need roughly nine times the amount of copper than traditional vehicles running on internal combustion engines.
Each battery cell is made of a cathode, an anode, an electrolyte (the medium through which the electrons travel), and a separator. The electrons move from the negative electrode (anode) to the positive electrode (cathode), producing energy that propels the car. Graphite and copper are the preferred anode materials, while lithium and other metals make up the cathode.
Cells are bunched together into modules to build a battery pack. The size of the battery pack depends on the desired power output and a single battery pack can contain hundreds or even thousands of cells. Current manufacturing techniques produce battery packs that can last for at least 10 years. But the continuous cycle of recharging and discharging the battery packs causes them to degrade over time leading to a constant reduction in their power output.
These battery packs store energy that’s then utilized to power the vehicle motor. While the generation and production of electricity and batteries for electric vehicles causes pollution, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies EVs as zero-emission vehicles as they don’t emit any fuel exhaust.
Are EV Batteries Recyclable?
An oft-asked question when it comes to EVs is “can you recycle EV batteries.” Once the EV battery components are separated, you can reuse them to manufacture new lithium-ion batteries, which manufacturers prefer over sourcing virgin ore. Mining for ore and separating the mineral from the ore are resource-intensive processes, and utilizing recycled metals is widely considered a cheaper and quicker option.
Research shows that by 2050, recycled materials could make up a considerable portion of the supply chain to manufacture EV batteries in the U.S. by delivering:
- Roughly 50% of cobalt
- 22% to 27% of lithium
- 40% to 46% of nickel
How to Recycle EV Batteries?
Battery recycling is vital to prevent toxic materials from entering the waste stream. Planned recycling also helps reinstate used materials into the supply chain, reduces waste, and keeps production costs low. Present-day EV battery recycling processes aim to lower the impact of wear and tear on the batteries using multiple methods. These methods also differ in the elements they recover from the batteries.
Direct recovery. This method is utilized to recover battery-grade materials that can be directly introduced into the supply chain after minimal processing. The cathode components are separated using physical and chemical processes that require minimal energy.
Hydrometallurgy. Hydrometallurgy involves dissolving battery components in acid to create molten metal. This process can dissolve specific components while leaving other materials in their original state. For example, a specific solution (called a “eutectic solvent”) dissolves everything except nickel, which can then be easily extracted. Hydrometallurgy is a safe option to extract desired materials, but can sometimes involve working with hazardous chemicals.
Pyrometallurgy. This process involves the shredding of cells mechanically and then burning them to form a charred mass containing a mixture of metals and plastic. This mixture is further heated to extract the metals and is similar to burning the ore obtained from mines to get the metal. Pyrometallurgy is preferred when batteries can be recycled without any consideration for their design or components, but involves a high energy input.
Challenges With EV Battery Recycling
The output of an EV battery deteriorates due to consistent use and is eventually discarded. Experts suggest that at this stage, although the batteries are no longer efficient to power a car, they still have about 70% of the original capacity and can be used for other applications.
Many of these batteries which are removed from their original vehicles can be directly fitted into other EVs to run them. Other applications include reusing the batteries in grids to store solar energy or replacing traditional combustion-energy peaking plants (backup power plants used during peak electricity demands) with battery-connected power plants.
But there remain some barriers to reusing batteries, some of which include:
- Lack of guidance on how EV owners should discard used batteries or the batteries in their decommissioned vehicles
- Lack of planning on the part of battery manufacturers when it comes to making them suitable for reuse
- High cost involved in storing used batteries and reusing them safely
- Inadequate number of batteries available for reuse
- Inadequate knowledge about who takes the initiative to look for and provide reused batteries