Electric vehicle battery recycling is set to become the issue of the future. There has been a huge growth in electric vehicles (EVs) on our roads in the last few years, with HIS Markit reporting that over 2.5 million were sold worldwide in 2020. This growth is set to continue and by 2030, it is expected that EVs will hold 32% of the total market share for new car sales. In Guernsey, as of June 2021, there were 1,084 electric vehicles registered; with sales averaging 13 per month.
There are significant advantages to EVs because, if they are charged by renewable electricity, they produce minimal greenhouse gases during their operation. As transport is now one of the largest areas of greenhouse gas production in developed economies (and proving the hardest to reduce), the growth in EV popularity and availability has the potential to significantly aid in the fight against climate change.
In 2020, approximately 550,000 EV batteries reached the end of their lives, and it is estimated that approximately 150 million more batteries will be generated by 2035. The global recycling rate of electric vehicle batteries is currently approximately 5%. The remainder are either stockpiled, for recycling or reuse at a later date, or disposed of in landfill.
EV batteries contain a wealth of precious metals and elements, including lithium, nickel and cobalt; which only exist in finite quantities in specific geographical regions. Most electric vehicles use lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) because they offer a high energy density and a relatively low product weight. In 2019, 35% of all LIBs produced globally were used in electric vehicles, and the demand for LIBs is only set to increase, with rising sales of electronics and EVs.
It is crucial that battery lifecycles are managed sustainably in order to meet the growing demand for electronics and EVs without depleting finite resources of raw materials, and to minimise the environmental damage associated with mining. So, how can this be done? There are two options: recycle or reuse.
Batteries can be volatile if processed improperly. For example, if lithium is exposed to air it can react with the oxygen and create fires, explosions, and toxic fumes. In fact, lithium batteries are responsible for 48% of all fires in waste processing facilities in the UK. Therefore, discarding lithium batteries in waste materials or landfill is a dangerous (let alone unsustainable) solution. However, the same properties that make batteries hazardous in a landfill makes recycling them quite difficult too.
EV batteries contain recyclable materials such as aluminium, steel, cobalt, manganese, nickel, and copper, contained in a strong protective shell. To recover these elements, recycling facilities first need to get inside the battery by breaking through this shell, before using pyrometallurgical and/or hydrometallurgical processes. In the hydrometallurgical process, the batteries are mechanically shredded and burnt, leaving a product called ‘black mass”. The mass then undergoes further processing to recover recyclable materials. Conversely, the pyrometallurgical process involves rinsing the battery in acid to create a “chemical soup”, from which recyclable elements can be recovered. Both techniques need to be carefully managed, under controlled conditions; in order to protect the workers and the environment.
There are a very limited number of EV battery recycling facilities worldwide, with only two existing in Europe. The process is energy intensive, the burning of the battery emits greenhouse gases, and a lot of non-recyclable waste is created throughout the process. Furthermore, outside the EU, health and safety; environment; and working conditions in these facilities are not carefully controlled, so the impacts may be even more damaging.
Because of the complexity of the recycling process, and the associated expenses; currently, just 5% of lithium-ion batteries are recycled.2 Researchers are working on a more ideal solution called direct recycling. In this process, the cathode mixture would remain intact, avoiding the extensive processing currently used to salvage the reusable components. The ability to efficiently recycle old batteries will have a major benefit beyond preventing hazardous waste and emissions, as it offers a good alternative to mining for raw materials. Mining itself can be environmentally destructive and socially problematic, particularly given the locations of some of the raw materials in EV batteries (manganese in deep ocean nodules, or cobalt in the Democratic Republic of Congo). Efficiently recycling end-of-life batteries will also provide economic opportunities to manufacturers, as this would ensure a ready supply of valuable materials closer to home. However, these benefits can only be gained if we can find a way to make the entire process more efficient and affordable.
The challenge for EV battery recycling is therefore both in technology and scale. Dismantling and recycling techniques that improve the speed, safety, and efficiency of the recycling process, including robotic automation and direct recycling, need to be developed and scaled up to effectively process the millions of end-of-life batteries we are going to see in the future. However, there is also a great need for manufacturers to design their batteries with recycling in mind in order to lessen the burden on outside technological solutions.
Although there is no legal requirement for manufacturers to offer a take-back scheme for batteries; EV brands such as Nissan, Renault, and Volkswagen do accept end-of-life batteries with a view to finding a more sustainable solution in the future. Volkswagen recently opened a battery recycling plant and aims to recycle 3,600 batteries during its pilot phase. Renault recycles 200 batteries per year; but aims to recycle 25% of all batteries on the market, and the production waste resulting from the process.
Reuse presents an attractive alternative, because LIBs typically retain 70 – 80% storage capacity at end of life. Although they are no longer suitable for re-use within electric vehicles; they can be used in static storage applications, such as energy storage systems for solar or other renewable energy technologies.
LIBs have been successfully re-used in several trials; but there are some issues that need to be addressed before re-use can become a widescale solution.
The first issue is that the first EV batteries that are now reaching end-of-life are not homogenous in design or chemistry. There is a wide variety of incompatible battery types that cannot be used together in “battery packs.”
Secondly, the volume of end-of-life batteries in 2030 will be capable of generating approximately 400 – 1,000 GWh/y in 2030. However, the demand for stationary storage in the EU is projected to be at, or below, 10 GWh /y for that same time period. A recycling solution will still be needed in order to feed the demand in manufacture, and minimise the need for mining raw resources.
Lastly, the existing EU Waste Batteries Directive (Directive, 2006/66/EC) states that LIBS must be appropriately collected and recycled; and thus the reuse of such batteries is yet to be accounted for in current EU regulations. In addition to this gap in regulations, there is no agreed benchmark relating to the quality or performance of batteries re-used in static energy storage.
If adequate and significant investment is committed, sustainable solutions for battery lifecycles are likely to scale up as EVs become increasingly popular; and the percentage of batteries going to landfill will decrease. However, all such schemes are operating in the UK, the EU, or overseas. Guernsey cannot currently directly access these schemes free of charge.
To date, only three electric vehicles have reached end-of-life in Guernsey. All three batteries are still in storage on island, due to the cost of exporting batteries to the UK or EU. Whether this cost will be borne by the States of Guernsey’s EV Subsidy scheme or the vehicle owner, is not yet clear.
The Guernsey Recycling Group of Companies (GRG) provides the infrastructure and services needed to manage all forms of general waste, dry recycling, and Specially Controlled Wastes. GRG includes Galaxy Computer Brokers (Galaxy CI) and the Guernsey Recycling Scrap Metal Yard: who process all forms of batteries, including lithium ion and lead acid batteries, from consumer electronics, electrical waste, and end of life vehicles, respectively.
With thanks to Simon Welch, Associate Director of Environmental Compliance; Matt Cox, Group Operations Director; and Fran Browning, Business and Compliance Manager at Galaxy CI, for their contribution to this article.