As the sales of electric vehicles surpassed 2.1 million units globally in 2019, questions arise over the extent to which they really reduce emissions. Sceptics argue that the manufacturing and end-of-life of electric vehicles mean they are no better than traditional vehicles, or at least have a long way to go.
This article explores whether battery recycling can somewhat address these concerns.
Batteries come in many forms but the most common are lithium-ion (EVs and technology), lead acid, nickel cadmium (power tools) and zinc (AA batteries).
It’s been estimated that by 2025, cars will account for around 90% of the lithium-ion battery market. Projections have indicated that by itself, China will produce around half a million metric tons of lithium-ion batteries by the end of 2020.
Whilst the lifespan of these batteries is not necessarily ‘short’, the majority are non-rechargeable and will eventually reach the end of their life.
2030 is the date that lithium-ion battery companies and ecologists alike are looking towards, when there will be around 11 million metric tons of batteries that need to be recycled and disposed of safely.
Current trends indicate that many of those batteries will be headed to landfills or to China. So recycling becomes an issue that will be far more important going forwards.
Can battery recycling ever be sustainable and profitable?
What is battery recycling?
The issue of having to recycle batteries is far from a new problem. Twenty years ago, the car industry faced a similar challenge when it came to the safe disposal of lead-acid 12-volt starter batteries.
The solution came from recycling, which not only created less waste but also allowed for jobs and centres to be established.
Currently, most countries sort batteries into their different chemistry types so more of the original material can be recovered to make new products, but this is not always the case with much of the waste reaching landfill.
In the UK alone, more than 600 million batteries annually end up in landfill.
Battery packs, especially those on the EV market contain valuable metals and other materials that can be recovered, processed, and then reused. But in Australia rates of recycling are around 2% to 3%. In Europe and the United States rates are not much better, sitting below 5%.
This is perhaps due to the high costs associated with battery metal separation. Batteries that do get recycled undergo high-temperature melting and extraction processes (usually called pyrometallurgy or smelting), similar to the methods used in the mining industry.
These facilities run at near 1,500 degrees Centigrade to recover cobalt, nickel and copper, but not lithium which is currently a problem for the EV battery recycling story.
However, there is a clear incentive for companies to invest in battery recycling.
The closed loop recycling system
The concentration of metals (manganese, cobalt, nickel) used in the cathodes of the battery packs often exceed metal concentrations found in natural ores. This means that battery packs are a rich resource and effectively present the market with a highly enriched ore to be extracted.
According to Anwar Sattar, lead engineer at Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG), when it comes to EV battery packs, “over 90% of the cell can be recovered”. The batteries are crushed and separated into like parts where the plastics go on to be reprocessed, and the lead is sent back to battery manufacturers for reuse.
The end result is that every new battery contains between 60-80% of recycled materials.
This creates something that’s known as a “closed-loop” system. Not only does it lower the cost of batteries because materials are recycled rather than having to be created, but it also encourages the value of seeing future use in seemingly “dead” batteries.
Can lithium-ion batteries be recycled?
The good news is that, while their composition is different, it’s also possible to recycle lithium-ion batteries.
The bad news is that it requires a change in the process to be able to recycle electrical vehicle batteries in a way that allows them to be reused. This is due to the thousands of battery cells grouped in modules, sensors, safety devices and circuitry. This complexity currently adds significant costs to dismantling and recycling efforts.
The “closed loop” system is an aspirational focus for manufacturers and suppliers of lithium-ion batteries. Ongoing research has shown that it is possible - and there are many scientists dedicated to improving the recycling possibilities.
How many Li-Ion batteries are currently recycled?
Currently, around 50% of lithium-ion batteries can be recycled effectively, although there are breakthroughs happening every day - companies in Finland are developing energy-efficient ways to deal with batteries.
Thanks to Finland’s material deposits of nickel, copper, cobalt, lithium and graphite, active mining and metallurgical industries and growing manufacturing sector, the country is in the unique position to be able to do more with lithium-ion recycling than anywhere else on earth.
The issue with lithium-ion batteries is that some metals contain toxins that are toxic to the environment and to humans. When broken down, lithium-ion batteries can also be a fire hazard.
Are batteries bad for the environment?
The issue with rechargeable batteries is the toxic metals that are used to make them. Cadmium, lead, and cobalt aren’t kind to the environment, and when rechargeable batteries start to degrade in landfills, they can contaminate the topsoil, groundwater, and air. Not only this, but when the chemical seeping happens, it can risk entering the human supply chain.
While the end-of-life impact of batteries remains to be seen, the truth is that the early-stages of Li-Ion batteries can cause a negative impact on the environment. The metals in the batteries have to be mined, and in the same way as with lead mining, there can be complications.
The mining for these metals also has a human impact, as many of the metals for lithium-ion batteries have elements mined in the cobalt mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo - a place that has caused global concern due to child labor practices.
How can battery recycling improve sustainability?
Recycling not only means that less batteries will end up in land-fill, but it also means that far fewer natural materials will have to be mined to sustain the EV boom.
Battery recycling is the first step in the shift from a linear EV economy where batteries would be used and then discarded of, to a circular EV economy that aims to re-use and re-purpose battery metals.
What is a Tesla Gigafactory?
A Tesla Gigafactory, located in Nevada, was created to specifically keep up with the projected tesla battery demand and will produce Model 3 electric motors and battery packs, the Powerwall and Powerpack.
Production began in 2014, and 6 years later is only at 30% completion. The Gigafactory is being built in phases, to allow for continuous production, with the current footprint spanning 5.3 million square feet of operational space across several floors.
Already, the Gigafactory is the highest-volume battery plant in the world, reaching an annual rate of 20GWh in 2018.
Tesla expects the Gigafactory will be the largest building in the world, and one of the first factories to become entirely powered by renewable energy sources such as solar.
Whilst the Gigafactory is the biggest producer of batteries, it is also the most advanced in terms of battery recycling. In 2019 Tesla announced its own recycling facility (a previously outsourced operation), with the aim of recycling its own batteries used in Teslas.
What is Tesla doing with old batteries?
In December 2019, Tesla announced a partnership with scientists from Dalhousie University, Canada, for a new Li-Ion battery patent.
This design is part of Elon Musk’s ambition for a 1 million-mile car battery - which will drastically reduce the amount of waste in a Tesla. Currently, the best-performing Tesla models have a single-charge range of around 370 miles and a lifespan of 300-500,000 miles.
As you might expect from the innovation giant that is Tesla, the company is well aware of the need to be sustainable and to reduce both the environmental - and the fiscal - impact of its batteries.
When it comes to battery recycling, the key stats at present are:
● 60% of Tesla’s batteries get recycled
● 10% get reused (battery case and some electrical components)
● All the excess goes to landfill due to excessive costs in recycling it
A Tescal battery is mostly made out of lithium metal oxides and avoids a lot of the more unpleasant metals that cause concern for the environment. In the past, Tesla has confirmed that their batteries are safe to be put into landfills, however there is also the Tesla battery recycling program.
How are Tesla batteries recycled?
Tesla will use the closed loop system that optimizes the materials for new battery production. Not only is it better for the environment, but it is actually cheaper than buying new, raw materials.
"The closed-loop battery recycling process at Gigafactory 1 presents a compelling solution to move energy supply away from the fossil-fuel based practice of take, make, and burn to a more circular model of recycling end-of-life batteries for reuse over and over again," - Tesla Impact Report 2019
Currently, when it comes to the Tesla battery recycling, the process is a slightly involved one that tries to avoid landfills. The combined weight of all the batteries in every tesla weigh approximately 1,000 pounds, and so recycling makes sense.
1. All the electronics are removed and tested
Where possible, they’re reused. Wires and metals are typically reused locally, while other modules are sent to the Toxco Materials Management Center.
2. The modules of lithium are frozen using liquid nitrogen
Which leaves them completely inert. This then makes them safe for shredding and crushing.
3. The modules of lithium are shred and crushed
Where they’re split into fluff, cobalt, copper, and slurry.
4. The copper-cobalt is sold to recovery centres
Who then break it down further in cobalt, nickel, copper and aluminium. The slurry is reused to coat appliances.
5. The propylene glycol is locally recycled
Once it’s been taken out of the cooling tubes.
In the US, according to its website, Tesla works with the Kinsbursky Brothers. In Europe, they are working with Umicore.
The Future of Battery Recycling
In the US, Tesla has indicated that they plan to set up a battery exchange system where customers can enjoy credits for returning used battery modules. These kinds of incentives are a great way to ensure that the public is as committed to the process of battery recycling as the companies who provide their cars.
What’s most transparent here is that there is a need for quick-thinking and continuing scientific research in order to address the potential issues of lithium batteries in the future. If electric vehicles are to become the norm, rather than simply a replacement in cities, the end-to-end process will need to be streamlined and made as efficient and cost-effective as possible.
CTO of Tesla JB Straubel has been explicit about the importance of this for the electric car manufacturing industry, and it’s impossible to overstate the influence that Tesla has on every other car manufacturer.
So while right now, the process is far from perfect - the good news is that the future is looking greener than ever.
What to do next
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