Driving into The Future of EV Battery Recycling
Environmental protection continues to be a heated subject globally and vehicle manufacturers are picking up the pace fast. As both individual and corporate consumers champion zero carbon footprint, zero-emission vehicles are witnessing an unprecedented surge the world over.
2019 alone saw the sale of electric vehicles hit mindboggling numbers at over 2 million units marking a sharp increase from the previous year. This milestone is further underpinned by fast-paced technological advances as evidenced by Tesla’s electric vehicle battery innovations that support extended driving ranges and promise higher performance.
The benefits of such inventions are endless including promoting better air quality and minimizing deadly carbon emissions. However, most electric vehicles use lithium-ion batteries which come with an expiration date. Typically, the batteries can last anywhere from 10 to 15 years (or more) before they need replacing owing to diminished capacity. Thus, the question about their disposal cannot be evaded.
That said, you don’t necessarily have to discard your lithium-ion battery after exhaustion. Electric vehicle battery recycling is actually very much doable!
This article takes an in-depth look into the intricacies surrounding EV battery recycling including why it is necessary, how it is done, and the options available.
Read ahead to learn more interesting facts about electric vehicles and their powering counterparts.
How does the EV battery work?
Whereas an internal combustion engine powers a vehicle through diesel or petrol combustion, an EV draws its power from a pack of batteries.
Think of the EV battery as an upscaled version of the typical lithium-ion battery in your smartphone. However, unlike cell phones that use a single battery, EVs use a pack comprising a multitude of individual lithium-ion cells working together to power your vehicle.
When charging the EV, electricity comes in to cause certain chemical changes inside the batteries. Then, when you start driving the car, these chemical changes are reversed to generate electric power for the car.
In other words, when plugged in, the EV undergoes a “charge” and “discharge” cycle when driving. Repeated over time, this process affects the charge capacity of the battery. In effect, this gradually diminishes the range and time to charge the battery between journey intervals.
So, why lithium-ion batteries?
EV manufacturers prefer lithium-ion batteries because they are rechargeable and boast proven success in several electronic products. These batteries come with a higher energy density compared to the typical nickel-cadmium and lead-acid rechargeable batteries.
This allows battery manufacturers to save on space and hence reduce the battery pack size. What’s more, lithium also happens to be the least dense metal which enhances overall portability.
Why is EV battery recycling necessary?
As EV sales skyrocket, automakers are finding it necessary to consider EV battery recycling as a measure to keep costs down and the environment secure.
In terms of cost savings, automakers are looking to cut not only battery costs but also the EVs they power by recycling as many battery parts as possible.
Picture this for a moment. You own an EV whose battery life is about to expire. What comes to mind as soon as you discover this is the whopping replacement cost of an entire battery pack. At anywhere between $5,000 to $15,000 (exclusive of labor costs), you are definitely bound to feel the pinch!
The truth is that while EV batteries are specially designed for extended life, nothing lasts forever. Over time, power storage capacity in EV batteries begins to decline rendering the battery a liability to the car and the car owner. Commonly termed battery degradation, this undesirable phenomenon ultimately impacts your battery’s energy capacity, power, range, and efficiency.
One of the most common causes of this degradation and one that you should strive to avoid is the frequent use of DC Fast Charging (or Level 3 charging) when recharging your EV battery. Thus, to ensure your EV battery health stays in tip-top condition, practice consulting your owner’s manual for specific battery maintenance tips.
In addition to keeping fast charging to a minimum, it is also wise to avoid prolonged exposure to extreme temperatures when driving. For instance, driving in extremely cold temperatures while using the vehicle’s heater may temporarily reduce the range of driving. Even when parked, avoid exposing your electric car to harsh winters to mitigate battery degradation. Instead of outside, it is best to park your EV inside the garage.
Having said that, electric vehicle battery recycling is also paramount because of the contents the batteries carry. Most EV batteries contain minerals such as lithium and cobalt which are both naturally occurring elements.
That means if automakers fail to emphasize EV battery recycling, miners will keep dredging the earth to extract more minerals. The more the mining takes place, the more the environment is exposed to degradation in form of biodiversity loss, erosion, soil contamination, and groundwater contamination. What’s more, frequent mining also elevates the risk of carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
Well, you might argue modern electric vehicles haven’t been around long enough to warrant that many expired EV batteries out there. While that may be true, the EV industry is rapidly picking up the pace and in the next couple of decades, millions of tons of batteries are set to qualify for disposal.
That, therefore, begs the question, “where will all that potentially hazardous waste end up if EV battery recycling is not adequately implemented?”
What is the EV battery recycling process?
Electric vehicle battery recycling is not as straightforward as it sounds. Not only is it complex but also costly. Thus, the rate of EV battery recycling is mostly confined to battery components with a high economic value.
Generally, to kick off the electric vehicle battery recycling process, the EV battery is first discharged and disassembled to remove the tough outer casing. Then, the exposed modules are shredded and hurled into a furnace. The lighter materials like manganese and lithium will be the first to burn. What’s left behind is an alloy slurry comprising higher-value metals like cobalt, nickel, and copper.
From there, the individual metals can then be extracted and purified out of the alloy using strong acidic solutions through a process called pyro-hydrometallurgical recovery. This complex process usually consumes excessive energy as well as releases plenty of toxic emissions and waste materials that must be recaptured to avoid atmospheric contamination.
In the process of recovery, nickel and cobalt are often recovered at a much higher rate than lithium. Most of the time, lithium isn’t valuable enough to qualify for recycling. Therefore, if at all recovered, lithium often fails to meet the quality standards to manufacture new batteries.
That said, EV battery recycling companies are actively seeking to enhance the crude electric vehicle battery recycling processes by researching ways to minimize hazardous emissions and waste products.
One of the ways still under development is direct recycling which separates individual battery cells from the cathode material before rehabilitating the chemical mixtures constituting it instead of extracting individual metals from the mix.
The aim of direct recycling is to end up with a higher-value product by maintaining the value of the entire combined structure rather than focusing on the individual materials.
Against that perspective, there is a great rallying call from scientists, researchers, institutions, and governments alike to scale up electric vehicle battery recycling to obtain valuable minerals from what could otherwise be perceived as massive waste.
In other words, as the mineral demand in the EV industry soars in the coming decades, effective EV battery recycling could potentially bridge any imminent deficits in mineral supply according to IEA estimates. This is just how crucial electrical battery recycling could be as a pivotal strategy to offset new metal mining demands.
How to unlock the EV battery recycling potential
Many experts believe that in order to realize the full potential of satisfying mining demands through EV battery recycling, different stakeholders should be intentional about supporting the EV industry.
For instance, governments could institute policies geared at supporting electric vehicle battery recycling. Some of these policies could feature:
- Battery design standards that allow electric vehicle battery recycling firms to disassemble them easily
- Robust battery take-back programs
- Laws prohibiting landfilling
- Regulations simplifying transportation of hazardous battery waste for recycling
However, recycling alone may not be sufficient to meet this ever-growing mineral demand in the EV industry. Instead, it is just one among many strategies proposed by experts to minimize the demand for new mining.
Other proposed strategies are inventing new batteries requiring fewer minerals and enhancing public transit or building walkable cities to cut the demand for private vehicles.
Recycling different batteries
As we delve deeper into electric vehicle battery recycling, it is imperative to note that different batteries have different recycling journeys. Whether you are looking to recycle lithium-ion, nickel-zinc, nickel-cadmium, nickel-metal hydride, or small sealed lead batteries, you can always consult CJD E-cycling to find out the right approach to take.
That said, it is dangerous to mix up the recycling process of different batteries. For instance, if a lithium-ion battery finds its way into a lead battery recycling stream, you may be staring at the risk of explosion or fire.
Now that you are forewarned enough, time to shift gears back to electric vehicle battery recycling. Are there EV manufacturers already doing it? What is their success story?
Let’s take the example of Volkswagen.
Volkswagen is leading the bandwagon of electric vehicle battery recycling
In a bid to reach sustainable e-mobility, most electric vehicle manufacturers are actively researching the best ways to repurpose EV batteries once they have fully exhausted their useful lives. Apart from considering repurposing the batteries for building powering, manufacturers such as Volkswagen are seriously looking into EV battery recycling.
Electric vehicle battery recycling typically entails disassembling valuable battery parts such as copper, stainless steel, lithium salts, aluminum, and plastic. The Germany-based EV manufacturer even set up a battery recycling pilot plant in Salzgitter that hopes to recycle up to 97% of battery components and targets at least 3,000 vehicle batteries annually.
Essentially, the goal of Volkswagen is to be responsible for everything as it relates to their products. Thus, they have purposed to employ a comprehensive approach to remain a sustainable electric vehicle manufacturer. From vehicle conception, production, sales, and operations, to recycling, the giant firm is gearing toward nothing short of sustainable driving.
Instead of treating EV batteries as hazardous waste, Volkswagen regards expired batteries as valuable sources of raw materials. Therefore, Volkswagen’s principal goal of EV battery recycling is to send back raw materials into the manufacturing process chain.
How Volkswagen undertakes EV battery recycling
So, what exactly transpires during the electric vehicle battery recycling process in Volkswagen’s pilot plant? Well, the expired batteries are first analyzed by a team of battery experts from Volkswagen.
After the in-depth analysis, an expired battery may be subjected to either of two subsequent processes. It may either be recycled or afforded a battery “second life”.
In most cases as depicted by Renault, second-life batteries are ideal for energy storage applications. Thus, they are suitable for both homeowners and grid operators. The plus in this is that it all happens without needing to produce any new batteries!
Moreover, Volkswagen has diversified the second-life battery application to include portable charging stations operated independently. These come in handy, especially for large-scale outdoor events or festivals. Think of it as operating your typical mobile phone power bank.
The charging stations may as well be hooked with power connections to afford an electric vehicle driver a quick charging option when undertaking long trips on highways.
With that in mind, if a battery doesn’t qualify for a second life, it proceeds to recycling. Essentially, the electric vehicle recycling process begins by shredding the battery parts. The resulting material is then dried and sieved to produce a residue called “black powder.” The powder is rich in manganese, cobalt, lithium, and nickel, all of which are valuable raw materials in the production of new batteries.
According to Volkswagen, this is the way to attaining sustainable e-mobility!
Although your electric vehicle gets to the end of its useful life, that doesn’t necessarily mean the expiration of its battery. Electric vehicle battery recycling is proving to be a viable solution for EV owners as the number of lithium-ion EV batteries soars.
Thus, for EVs to remain sustainable, mechanisms to safeguard their battery mineral supplies must be put in place. EV battery recycling has shown impressive prospects in meeting this demand while safeguarding the interests of the environment.
So, don’t get stranded again when you can simply recycle your EV battery. Contact CJD E-cycling today to learn more about modern electric vehicle battery recycling.