Lithium-ion batteries are used in nearly every electric vehicle and have a service life of around 10 years before replacement is needed. Electric car batteries are highly recyclable, with around 90 percent of the cell being recoverable as a commercial activity. This is achievable if the recycling companies profit from the recycling process. Wiring and plastics can be stripped and recycled. The precious mined metals contained in the battery cell electrolyte can be dangerous to access since they are flammable, explosive and very toxic. These hazards must be dealt with before cell components can be recycled.
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Recycling Solutions: Second Life Applications
Some car manufacturers, such as Volvo, have committed to developing second-life applications for high-voltage batteries as part of creating a closed-loop system that ensures all materials in cars are recycled.
Working with BatteryLoop, Volvo is developing batteries used for electric cars that can be used for a solar energy storage system, which powers charging points for cars and bikes.
Volvo is also piloting how to use plug-in hybrids as an energy storage unit for a hydropower operation in Sweden. The aim is to discover how long batteries last in those situations and work out the sustainability and financial benefits.
Volvo reveals each battery produces around six to eight tons of CO2, which requires a lot of raw metals, but it is trying to establish if extending battery life is worthwhile, or whether it is better to recycle immediately.
Nissan uses second-life batteries from its Leaf car model for energy storage, with an off-the-shelf home or commercial unit called xStorage as a rival to Tesla’s Powerwall.
Honda is planning a collaboration with Societe Nouvelle d’Affinage des Metaux (SNAM) to collect and recycle batteries for second-life use or the extraction of precious elements.
BMW announced a partnership with Off Grid Energy for a sustainable second-life solution for end-of-life BMW and MINI electric and hybrid models. Battery modules will create mobile power units, for which prototypes powered by lithium-ion units taken from MINI are already being used. It has a 40 kWh capacity, with a 7.2 kW fast charge.
BMW and Off Grid say as more modules become available as electric cars age, the system will have a capacity of up to 180 kWh, with multiple charges of up to 50 kW. This will double the CO2 reduction achieved over the original battery use in the car.
Renault launched its SmartHub project in 2020, an energy system comprising 1,000 second-life electric-car batteries, to provide energy for social housing, transport, residential homes and local businesses.
Renault claims its system can store enough energy to power 1,700 homes for a day.
Jaguar Land Rover has developed a portable electric-car charger, using battery packs from I-Pace prototypes, called the Off-Grid Battery Energy Storage System (ESS), which has a capacity of 125 kWh, with integrated solar panels. It is designed for commercial hire when access to mains electricity is unavailable.
Recycling Solutions: Precious Metal Re-Use
Lithium-ion batteries used for electric vehicles require large quantities of cobalt, much of which is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has raised issues concerning child mining and human rights abuses, as well as ecological concerns over pollution and other mining hazards.
Faraday Institution research fellow, Dr. Gavin Harper, claims:
"It may make more economic sense to recycle EV batteries for use in brand-new batteries for cars, rather than using them in a used state in a less demanding application such as power storage."
Mercedes agrees with this principle after shelving its own home energy storage system after just one year, whilst Nissan remains committed to transferring electric-car battery technology for home-energy use.
Recycled metals are very valuable and require a combination of pyro and hydro-metallurgy processes to recover materials.
Umicore’s recycling plant in Belgium recycles approximately 35,000 EV batteries per year, with plans to scale up production, as more batteries require recycling over time.
Fortum, a Finnish company, announced a development in recycling lithium from rechargeable batteries, using a low-CO2 hydrometallurgical recycling process to recover nickel, cobalt and manganese, boasting a recycling achievement of over 80 percent.
In January 2022, Veolia opened its first battery recycling plant in the UK in the West Midlands. It aims to process 20 percent of the UK’s end-of-life electric car batteries by 2024, describing its process as ‘urban mining’, with reduced water consumption and 50 percent less greenhouse gas emissions, compared to mining new raw materials.
Tesla is also planning to recycle its batteries so that metal mining will not be needed.
Alternative Battery Technology: Sodium-Ion
Sodium-ion batteries operate in the same way as lithium-ion batteries and can be recycled in the same way.
The advantage of sodium-ion batteries is that sodium is less costly and more plentiful, but they still need to be manufactured to achieve the same performance rate as lithium-ion batteries because the technology is not quite there yet.
Alternative Battery Technology: Solid-State
Solid-state batteries are something many big car manufacturers are investigating because they are less flammable, and potentially more efficient than lithium-ion ones, although they do present different recycling challenges.
Solid-state batteries can store more energy than lithium-ion ones and are both safer and faster to charge.
In a lithium-ion battery, the electrolytes take the form of a gooey liquid, whereas, in solid-state batteries, the electrolytes are made up of solid thin layers, making them far more stable and less flammable.
Electric cars do not use solid-state batteries due to them being more difficult to scale up production to the necessary volume needed for widespread use.
Solid-state electrolytes need to be good conductors, but being thin and weak makes them prone to cracking and around eight times more expensive to manufacture.
Nissan has launched ‘Ambition 2030’, its electrification commitment to launch a solid-state battery car by 2028, from its pilot plant in Yokohama, Japan.
Nissan is also aiming to bring the cost of solid-state batteries down to eliminate the price gap between electric and combustion-engined cars.
Alternative Battery Technology: Nano-Silicon
OneD Battery Sciences, a US-based company, has developed a nano silicon technology called SINANODE, aimed at simplifying the process of using nano silicon technology, and making it more cost-effective.
The SINANODE process supercharges commercial graphite by fusing large quantities of tiny silicon nanowires, producing thousands of silicon nanowires on each graphite particle.
The silicon can triple the amount of energy stored, decrease charging time by half, and reduce costs. It also reduces battery weight and lowers CO2 produced per kWh, making it more cost-effective by reducing the costs of materials and cells used in electric vehicles.
Whichever electric battery becomes the market leader over time, one thing that is commonly agreed upon by car manufacturers is that it makes both economic and ecological sense to leave as many metals in the ground as possible by re-using whatever metals have already been mined in the most efficient and sustainable ways possible.
References and Further Reading
Electric car battery recycling: all you need to know (03.15.2022) Parrott.V in driving electric (accessed 06.22.2022) https://www.drivingelectric.com/your-questions-answered/840/electric-car-battery-recycling-all-you-need-to-know
Silicon-based battery technology ‘breakthrough that improves performance and decreases costs’ (03.16.2022) Beecham.M in Just Auto online (accessed 06.22.2022) https://www.just-auto.com/interview/silicon-based-battery-technology-breakthrough-that-improves-performance-and-decreases-costs/
What are solid-state batteries and how will they improve electric cars? (04.08.2022) Errity.F in driving electric online (accessed 06.22.2022) https://www.drivingelectric.com/your-questions-answered/41097/what-are-solid-state-batteries-and-how-will-they-improve-electric