As electric vehicles take off, we’ll need to recycle their batteries
the hundreds EV (electric vehicle) models that the main car manufacturers will be launching in the coming years indicate that the EV revolution is finally taking hold. But as this industry, key to the fight against climate change, matures, a new challenge emerges: how to acquire all the minerals needed to make EV batteries.
The lithium, nickel, cobalt, and copper inside these batteries have all been, at some point, mined from the earth. Today, much of that mining is concentrated in places like Russia, Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, places where environmental oversight is often poor, labor standards often lax, and industry. mining has a habit of fueling conflicts with local communities. With the number of EVs on the roads should increase from 10 million in 2020 to over 145 million in 2030, the demand for battery minerals is ready to ascend. A certain industry watch dogs to warn that the clean transit boom could fuel a dirty mining boom.
To reduce the need for new mining operations, experts say we’re going to have to get a lot better at recycling EV batteries when they die. While only a small number of electric vehicle batteries have ever aged on the street, million tons batteries are expected to be decommissioned over the next decades. These batteries could supply a significant fraction of the future mineral demand of the electric vehicle industry, but better recycling methods and government policies to support them are needed to ensure batteries do not end up in landfills.
“The way that has been reversed is: ‘We’re going to have to deal with these climate issues, develop new mines, extract them as quickly as possible,” says Payal Sampat, director of mining programs at Environmental Earthworks at goal. non-profit. “And that’s certainly how short-term planning works. But we need to find thoughtful solutions to this problem which is a very long term problem. “
Break a battery
Electric vehicle batteries are complex pieces of technology, but at a basic level they are reminiscent of the lithium-ion battery inside your phone. Individual battery cells consist of a metal cathode (made of lithium with a mixture of other elements which may include cobalt, nickel, manganese and iron), a graphite anode, a separator, and a liquid electrolyte usually composed of a lithium salt. When charged lithium ions flow from the anode to the cathode, an electric current is generated.
Only one of these batteries is enough to power a phone. To operate a car, thousands of cells must be grouped together, usually in a series of modules that are wired together in battery packs and housed in a protective metal case. In total, these giant electrochemical sandwiches can weigh over a thousand pounds each (the battery in the Ford F150-Lightning pickup truck weighs closer to 2,000 pounds).
Most of the valuable materials that recyclers want to extract are found in individual battery cells. But EV batteries are built to withstand many years and thousands of kilometers of use, not to be deconstructed into their components. “For all kinds of very good reasons you can think of, you don’t want them to fall apart in the blink of an eye,” says Paul Andersen, principal investigator for the reuse and recycling of lithium-ion batteries at the Faraday Institution (ReLib) at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom
Partly due to the cost and complexity of removing the EV battery, the recycling methods are quite rude. After the battery is discharged and the tough outer casing removed, the modules are often shredded and thrown in an oven. Lighter materials like lithium and manganese burn, leaving behind an alloy slurry that contains higher-value metals like copper, nickel, and cobalt. Individual metals can then be purified from this alloy using strong acids. These processes, known as pyro- and hydrometallurgical recovery, require large amounts of energy and produce toxic gases and wastes that must be recovered.
While cobalt and nickel are often recovered at high rates, in most cases lithium is not valuable enough for recyclers to attempt to recycle it. If the lithium is recovered, it is often not of a quality suitable for the manufacture of new batteries.
In the future, there may be a cleaner and more efficient option: to recycle directly, or to separate the cathode material from the individual battery cells and rehabilitate the chemical mixtures inside, including by adding more lithium. which has been depleted by use, instead of extracting individual metals from the mixture. Although direct recycling methods are still in an early stage of development, this approach could one day allow recyclers to recover more of the materials in batteries and obtain a higher value end product, according to the company. Gavin harper, researcher at the Faraday Institution.
“You have value in the raw materials, but there is so much more value in the way those materials are combined,” says Harper. “It would be kind of the holy grail of recycling –try to keep the value that is in the structure, not just in the materials. “
Develop an industry
The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that the world currently has sufficient capacity to recycle 180,000 metric tonnes of dead EV batteries per year. For comparison, all electric vehicles put into circulation in 2019 possibly generate 500,000 tonnes of waste batteries.
And it’s only a year. By 2040, the IEA estimates that there could be 1,300 gigawatt hours of used batteries to be recycled. To put that in terms of mass, Harper notes that an 80 kilowatt-hour battery in a Tesla Model 3 weighs just over a thousand pounds. If all of those dead batteries were from Tesla Model 3, that amount of depleted battery storage capacity translates to almost 8 million metric tons of battery waste, which Harper notes is 1.3 times the mass of the battery. Great Pyramid of Giza.
If recycling can be intensified, this waste could be an important source of minerals. In a sustainable development scenario where the electric vehicle market is growing at a rate consistent with limiting global warming to less than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius), the IEA estimates that recycling could meet up to 12% of the electric vehicle industry’s mineral demand by 2040. But if the same climate scenario is combined with a more optimistic set of recycling assumptions, recycling could play a much bigger role.
A recent report commissioned by Earthworks found that if we assume that 100% of dead EV batteries are collected for recycling and mineral recovery rates, especially for lithium, recycling could meet up to 25% of lithium demand of the EV industry and 35% of its cobalt and nickel needs by 2040.