Given the complex nature of batteries consumed by Electric Vehicles (EV’s) and their negative impact on the environment, researchers, Governments, and the manufacturing industry hunt for a sustainable battery recycling solution. According to the European Union, by 2030, 30 million electric cars will be on European roads alone.
Scientists are mainly concerned about the environmental risks the batteries pose once their shelf life ends.
The batteries consumed by EV’s are a tad different from conventional cars. Compared to the traditional lead-acid batteries that are widely recycled, EV batteries are much heavier. A single EV battery has multiple individual lithium-ion cells, all of which need to dismantling before recycling. As there’s a high risk of explosion if disassembled incorrectly.
Decoding the Battery
The top materials used in EV batteries are Cobalt, Nickel, Manganese, Graphite, and Silicon. Most EV battery electrolytes are Li-ion based as they use lithium to carry the charge between electrodes. A typical EV battery uses 10,000 times the amount of lithium in comparison to standard Li-ion batteries.
EV batteries are composed of cells, modules, and a pack. They come in varied designs that include rectangular prismatic cells and cylindrical cells.
Post the recycling process, the residue of an EV battery is reduced to what is known as ‘Black Mass’. It is a mixture of lithium, manganese, cobalt, and nickel. This mixture needs further intensive processing to recover the materials in a usable form. The structure of batteries is even more worrisome to recyclers as they are built like nested dolls. The metals inside these batteries are hard to locate and extract. If disposed of in landfills, EV batteries can seep chemicals into groundwater leading to chemical fires in most extreme cases.
How are EV Batteries recycled?
There are two standard recycling methods widely used,
Hydrometallurgy – involves dunking battery materials in pools of acid.
Pyrometallurgy – Mechanically shredding the cell and then burning it.
Both the above processes emit greenhouse gases and produce extensive waste. However, experts believe manual dismantling of fuel cells is a better option as it enables efficient recovery of the core materials.
Plans to tackle Battery Pollution
Tesla’s newest generation of batteries has aimed at eliminating cobalt altogether, making them highly recyclable. Not only can 90% of the battery be recycled, but even after its usable life in a Tesla, the battery can be used for energy storage for another 20 years or so. In addition, batteries can be refurbished by replacing bad cells or removing good cells to use in another battery.
CATL, a leading battery manufacturer, recently announced that they plan to manufacture ‘Million Mile’ batteries to extend the shelf life of EV batteries up to 16 years and one million miles. The US Department of Energy (DOE) has pumped the ReCell Center with $ 15 million for over three years. The Center collaborators are working on the development of testbeds and a process scale-up facility at Argonne. Their primary focus would be enabling profitable lithium-ion battery recycling for industry adoption.
Nissan has started reusing old batteries from its Leaf cars for the automated guided vehicles. And Volkswagen recently set up its pilot recycling plant in Salzgitter, Germany, with plans to recycle up to 3,600 battery systems a year during the pilot phase.
“As a result of the recycling process, many different materials are recovered. As a first step, we focus on cathode metals like cobalt, nickel, lithium, and manganese,” says Thomas Tiedje, head of planning for recycling at Volkswagen Group Components. He adds, “Dismantled parts of the battery systems such as aluminium and copper are provided into established recycling streams.”
Meanwhile, Renault has tied up with French waste management company Veolia and Belgian chemical firm Solvay to recycle all its electric car batteries. Renault authorities aim to address 25% of the recycling market. They plan to recycle both Renault batteries and batteries used in other EVs, including the production waste from battery manufacturing plants.
“On the one side, [disposing of EV batteries] is a waste management problem. And on the other side, it’s an opportunity for producing a sustainable secondary stream of critical materials,” adds Birmingham University’s Gavin Harper, who studies EV policy issues.
He further adds, “Automating battery recycling will make it more economical and safer.”
Ultrasonic waves and Recycling – A possible solution?
Researchers from the University of Leicester and the University of Birmingham working on the Faraday Institution’s ReLib project have applied for a patent to their innovative recycling solution. They have found a way to use ultrasonic waves to recycle the cathode (electrode through which current flows into the device) and anode (electrode through which current flows out of the device) without shredding the battery.
The technology recovers the cathode powder made up of cobalt, nickel, and manganese from the aluminium sheet, to which it’s glued during the battery manufacturing process. The anode powder, which would typically be graphite, is separated from the copper sheet.
Separation using ultrasonic waves would reduce the cost by up to 60% compared with the cost of virgin material, says Andy Abbott, a professor of physical chemistry at the University of Leicester.
He adds that compared to more conventional technology, based on hydrometallurgy, which uses liquids, such as sulphuric acid and water to extract materials, ultrasonic technology can process 100 times more battery material over the same period.
News Item – in the Box
TES on Friday started operating its first-of-its-kind Lithium-ion battery recycling plant in the Netherlands. In the port of Rotterdam, this large facility recycles EV batteries and will be fully functional by late 2022. In March, TES had opened a state-of-the-art facility to recycle lithium batteries in Singapore in Southeast Asia.
- The US sold 328,118 electric cars in 2018
- Electric vehicles (EVs) currently make up only 3% of car sales worldwide.
- By 2025 electric vehicles (EVs) will reach 10% of global passenger vehicle sales, growing to 28% in 2030.
- By 2040, 58% of global passenger vehicle sales will come from electric vehicles.
- At the same time, they will make up less than 33% of all the cars on the road.