There has been a lot of talk in the energy world about vehicle electrification. Transportation in the U.S. represents 28% of the greenhouse gases emitted (data from 2018), the largest contribution per economic sector in the country. So, when scientists and energy specialists say that electrifying transportation is the key to decarbonization, they have a point.
In transportation, over 90% of the fuel used is petroleum based, primarily gasoline and diesel. And although in some transportation segments petroleum fuel is more difficult to replace, electric cars and trucks are already market available for daily commuters.
More than 5 million electric vehicles were on the road in 2018, with 2 million of those added in the same year; and demand keeps growing, thanks in large part to Tesla. Different countries and local governments have jumped in the effort of electrifying their cities in Europe, China where about half of the world’s EVs are sold, and states like California where about half of the U.S. electric vehicle fleet is.
The main component of EVs is the battery that powers the car. Most automakers use lithium-ion batteries while others use acid-lead batteries. Mining for the elements necessary to build the batteries is notoriously energy and labor intensive; and in most cases, the energy used to power these operations comes from fossil fuels.
In 2018, the first generation of EVs entered the age of retirement based on the calendar life of a battery. There are actually two ways to determine a battery’s end-of-life: by the number of charge-discharge cycles and by calendar life, which for lithium-ion batteries is between 8 and 10 years. A battery is usually considered to have reached its end-of-life when its maximum capacity is at 80% of its original fully charged state.
Once a battery reaches its expiration date, there is disposal or recycling to be considered. Disposal poses safety concerns which include the release of hazardous substances under landfill conditions, as well as fire risks. Disposal of acid-lead batteries is heavily regulated due to their well-known toxicity; thus, promoting recycling has been a top priority resulting in almost 100% recycling rate. Unlike acid-lead batteries, lithium-ion batteries are expensive to recycle which results in about 95% of these batteries being disposed in landfills rather than recycled. Experts project that about 11 tonnes of lithium-ion batteries will be discarded between 2017 and 2030.
What is going to happen to all these batteries entering retirement age then? Good news is that recycling is not only possible but it is getting conceivably profitable with many automakers and third-party firms developing recycling regimes and finding solutions for the battery problem. But like every new venture, it does not come without limitations.
Tesla’s former CTO and co-founder, JB Straubel, established a battery recycling startup called Redwood Materials. The process includes stripping down the retired EVs for core materials and use them to build new power cells, as well as scrapping the vehicles for other precious components like cobalt, nickel, and other materials. Tesla itself also announced in April 2019 that the company would open its own battery recycling facility in its Nevada Gigafactory creating a closed-loop system. Previously, Tesla used a third-party firm for recycling their batteries.
As EVs grow in popularity and existing batteries on the road reach their end-of-life, recent literature has expressed concerns whether the recycling industry is adequately equipped to handle the expected growing volumes of lithium-ion batteries in the years to come. Batteries are not designed for easy disassembly; and manual removal of a battery poses risks to the workers. Thankfully, robotic disassembly exists, alongside with sorting machines; but there is an urgency to scale up global operations now, as well as the need for universal mixed-waste processing technology that can take different types of battery chemistries.
Some countries are using the retired and recycled batteries to power small operations like chilling drinking fountains at 7-Elevens around Japan, powering car charging stations in California, and storing energy for homes in Europe.
Much work is still needed to truly achieve a closed-loop recycling ecosystem. This includes finding ways to reuse and recycle, which is becoming more urgent as the global stockpile of EV batteries keeps growing and is expected to exceed the equivalent of about 3.4 million battery packs by 2025.
Sources: InsideEVs, Bloomberg, Digital Initiative, Jean-Paul Skeete et al. (2020)