A Tesla Model S’s battery pack is an impressive engineering achievement. Lithium and electrons are converted into sufficient energy to drive the automobile hundreds of kilometers repeatedly without emitting any exhaust emissions by tens of thousands of cylindrical cells made of parts from all over the world.
The battery’s ecological advantages, however, diminish as it nears the end of its useful life. Its cells have the potential to release harmful poisons, including as heavy metals, if it ends up in a landfill. Additionally, recycling the batteries can be risky since if a Tesla cell is cut in the incorrect spot or too deeply, it could short-circuit, catch fire, and emit toxic fumes. How to recycle the millions of electric vehicle (EV) batteries that manufacturers anticipate producing over the next few decades is only one of the many issues that experts are seeking to address.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), there is already enough capacity in the globe to recycle 180,000 metric tons of used electric vehicle batteries each year. For comparison, 500,000 metric tons of battery waste will be produced by all the EVs that are put on the road in 2019. And just one year at that.
The IEA predicts that 1,300 gigawatt hours’ worth of used batteries may need to be recycled by 2040. An 80 kilowatt-hour battery pack from a Tesla Model 3 weighs little over a thousand pounds, to put it in terms of mass. This quantity of expended battery storage capacity amounts to roughly 8 million metric tons of battery waste, which is 1.3 times the mass of the Great Pyramid of Giza if all of those dead batteries were from Tesla Model 3 vehicles.
That garbage could be a significant source of minerals if recycling can be ramped up. The IEA predicts that recycling could supply up to 12% of the EV industry’s mineral needs by 2040 in a sustainable development scenario where the market for EVs expands at a rate consistent with keeping global warming below 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius). Recycling might play a considerably larger role, though, if the same climatic scenario is combined with a more positive set of recycling assumptions.
To see what can be done, let’s examine the battery’s components. Each of the metals found in those batteries—lithium, nickel, cobalt, and copper—was formerly mined from the soil. Today, a large portion of that mining is concentrated in nations like Russia, Indonesia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where there is a history of the mining industry escalating conflicts with local communities and where environmental oversight is frequently subpar and labor standards are frequently lax. The demand for battery materials is anticipated to soar as the number of EVs on the road is projected to increase from 10 million in 2020 to over 145 million by 2030. The clean transit boom, according to some industry watchdogs, could spark a filthy mining boom.
The ability to recycle EV batteries when they expire will need to improve significantly, according to experts, in order to lessen the need for new mining. Millions of tons of batteries are anticipated to be decommissioned over the next few decades, even though just a tiny number of EV batteries have actually been taken off the streets. These batteries could meet a sizeable portion of the future mineral needs of the EV sector, but better recycling practices and supportive government regulations are required to prevent batteries from ending up in landfills.
EV batteries are sophisticated technological devices, yet on a fundamental level, they are similar to the lithium ion battery in your phone. Each battery cell is made up of a lithium-based metal cathode, a graphite anode, a separator, a liquid electrolyte that is commonly built of a lithium salt, and a liquid electrolyte that may also contain cobalt, nickel, manganese, and iron. Electrical current is produced as charged lithium ions move from the anode to the cathode.
A phone can be powered by just one of these batteries. Thousands of cells must be packaged together in order to power an automobile; normally, these modules are connected to form battery packs and are enclosed in a sturdy metal shell. These enormous electrochemical sandwiches can weigh more than a thousand pounds each when combined.
Individual battery cells contain most of the valuable elements that recyclers are looking to recover. However, EV batteries are not intended to be disassembled into their component parts, but to last for many years and thousands of miles of use.
Today’s recycling techniques are somewhat primitive, in part because EV battery dismantling is expensive and difficult. Modules are frequently shredded and placed in a furnace once the battery has been depleted and the durable outer casing has been removed. Burning lighter substances like manganese and lithium produces an alloy slurry that contains more valuable metals like copper, nickel, and cobalt. Strong acids can then be used to separate individual metals from that alloy. These procedures, referred to as pyro- and hydrometallurgical recovery, demand a lot of energy and generate waste materials and poisonous gases that need to be recovered.
While cobalt and nickel are frequently recovered at high rates, lithium is typically too valuable for recyclers to attempt to recycle. Even if lithium is recovered, it frequently isn’t of a grade that can be used to create new batteries.
Direct recycling, or removing the cathode material from individual battery cells and rehabilitating the chemical mixtures inside of it, including by adding back lithium that has been depleted from use, may one day be a cleaner and more effective alternative to extracting individual metals from the mixture. Although direct recycling techniques are still in their infancy, this strategy may one day enable recyclers to recover more of the materials contained in batteries and produce a higher-value finished good.
A pyrometallurgical smelting procedure to remove precious minerals from the battery cathode is one recycling method. The disadvantage is that it can produce carbon emissions and recovers just a part of the necessary elements, including none of the priceless lithium. A hydrometallurgical chemical leaching process may be more promising in terms of mineral capture and environmental sensitivity.
While technology is developing to determine the optimal strategy, a major obstacle may be some states’ strong environmental restrictions, such as those in California, especially since the batteries are considered hazardous waste. According to the report, the last new hazardous facility received approval eight years ago, and hazardous waste treatment permits often take two years to be issued. Therefore, there are no current models for how to negotiate an onerous regulatory process in an effective manner.
Additionally, there is no structure in place to manage their collection, post-vehicle usage, or destruction once the warranty expires. A crucial suggestion is to designate who is in charge of making sure the batteries are recycled, reused, or both. If the battery is still covered by warranty, the battery supplier would be responsible. If the car has reached the end of its useful life, the dismantler would be responsible. If the retired car is not sold to a dismantler, the vehicle manufacturer would be responsible.
Although the Legislature could contemplate taking up such a law, a proposal to make the car manufacturer accountable for the majority, if not all, batteries at their end of life, including covering recycling expenses, failed to garner a majority vote. The idea of charging an environmental handling fee at the time of car purchase was also rejected.
Other agreed ideas include labeling batteries to make it clear what’s inside, offering financial incentives to recyclers, and promoting the growth of domestic battery production because the majority of batteries are now manufactured abroad. The massive batteries’ import creates a considerable carbon impact, and mining for battery components overseas has led to environmental and social problems, including child labor.
Still, there is hope. Not all used batteries are useless after being taken out of an EV. Many of them still have enough energy to perform other tasks even though they might not be able to power a car anymore. For instance, Nissan and Volkswagen are currently using used EV batteries in some of their manufacturing robots.
“Upcycling firms” like Betteries are reusing other batteries. The German business uses used EV batteries to run fishing boats or provide transportable power to outlying areas. Working together, battery producers, automakers, and outside organizations will be necessary to address this issue.
Legislation will definitely provide additional motivation for reform. Manufacturers in China are already offered incentives to choose recycled materials over virgin ones. Although the US has not yet proposed any specific adjustments, they may soon be forced to follow suit as Europe is expected to impose harsher recycling rules within the next couple of years.
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