Accelerating recycling to sustain the electric vehicle boom

The challenge of recycling EV batteries, particularly lithium-ion batteries, encompasses both environmental sustainability and resource efficiency

By Aditya Sinha

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Workers are seen at the production line of lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles (EV) at a factory in Huzhou, Zhejiang province, China, on August 28, 2018. Photo: Reuters
Workers are seen at the production line of lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles (EV) at a factory in Huzhou, Zhejiang province, China, on August 28, 2018. Photo: Reuters

Published: Tue 9 Apr 2024, 12:13 AM

In the dystopian sci-fi novel The Circuit of Heaven, the earth is strewn with layers of electronic waste, remnants of a consumerist society obsessed with the latest technological gadgets. Towering piles of discarded electronics form the backdrop of a world where nature has been obliterated by silicon and metal, a stark warning of the unbridled consequences of technological neglect. While our current reality is not as dire as the one depicted in this fictional universe, the surge in adoption of renewable energy sources and electric vehicles (EVs) has led to an increased reliance on batteries. This transition, although beneficial for reducing carbon emissions, introduces a significant challenge: the efficient recycling and disposal of these batteries, ensuring that our steps towards a greener future don't inadvertently create a new environmental quandary.

As electric mobility gains traction worldwide, the demand for electric vehicle (EV) batteries is skyrocketing, with battery production projected to exceed five terawatt hours (TWh) annually by 2030, and over 100 million vehicle batteries anticipated to retire in the next decade. This shift towards electric mobility, beneficial for both the environment and consumer economics, necessitates the development and scaling of new supply chains, offering a chance to create systems that are more stable, resilient, efficient, and sustainable than those of the fossil-fuel and internal combustion engine (ICE) industries. Battery recycling emerges as a crucial element in seizing this opportunity, especially as the primary source of recyclable battery material currently stems from consumer electronics and manufacturing scrap, with the latter reaching up to 30 per cent during the initial phase of new battery factory operations. Although end-of-life EV batteries currently represent a significant volume in regions with advanced EV adoption like China, US & EU, according to McKinsey, it's projected that production scrap will dominate as the main recycling source until 2030, when the volume of retired EV batteries is expected to surge and potentially become the predominant source of recycling material.

The challenge of recycling EV batteries, particularly lithium-ion batteries, encompasses both environmental sustainability and resource efficiency. As the adoption of electric vehicles continues to grow, driven by global efforts to reduce carbon emissions, the issue of battery end-of-life management becomes increasingly critical. More than 20 countries, alongside numerous automakers, have committed to significant electrification targets, necessitating an increased demand for critical battery materials such as nickel (Ni), cobalt (Co), manganese (Mn), lithium (Li), and graphite. This surge has heightened the pressure on raw material supplies, with projections indicating potential shortages, particularly for Li and Co, which are critical to battery manufacturing.

A 2020 report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) forecasts a significant surge in electric vehicle numbers, estimating that there could be up to 145 million EVs on the road by 2030. This growth in EV adoption will lead to a corresponding increase in the number of batteries that will need recycling at the end of their life cycles, highlighting the urgent need for effective recycling processes and technologies.

The Global Battery Alliance, in its 2021 vision paper, emphasises the importance of establishing a circular battery value chain. The paper discusses the potential to reduce the environmental footprint of batteries, recover valuable materials like lithium, cobalt, and nickel, and support the sustainable growth of the EV market. The alliance advocates for a systemic approach to battery recycling, one that includes the development of standards and policies to encourage the reuse and recycling of battery components.

In terms of the technical challenges, the University of Birmingham’s research underscores the complexity of battery recycling processes. The study details the need for advanced methods to efficiently and safely disassemble batteries, separate their valuable components, and purify these materials for reuse in new batteries. This requires not only technological innovation but also significant investment to scale up recycling capacities.

Modern lithium ion batteries (LIB) come in various formats—cylindrical, prismatic, and pouch cells—each with unique disassembly and pre-treatment requirements that complicate recycling processes. For instance, the adhesive bonding of cells in some modules can significantly hinder material recovery efforts. Moreover, the continuous advancements in battery technology, such as Tesla’s “tabless" battery design and BYD’s blade battery pack, introduce new complexities for recycling methodologies, particularly for direct recycling methods that require detailed disassembly and separation of components.

Material evolution adds another layer of complexity. The transition from LiCoO2 (LCO) to nickel-rich NMC (LiNixMnyCo1-x-yO2) cathodes, aimed at enhancing energy density and reducing costs, necessitates adaptable recycling processes that can handle diverse and evolving material chemistries. Anode materials are also evolving, with shifts from graphite to silicon-based and eventually lithium metal anodes, each presenting unique recycling challenges and opportunities.

From a commercial perspective, scaling up LIB recycling to handle the anticipated millions of tonnes of spent LIBs by 2030 is a critical hurdle. The current recycling rate of less than five per cent needs to be significantly increased to manage the projected waste and supply secondary materials to the battery market. Economic viability remains a concern, as the profitability of recycling processes is heavily dependent on the recovery of valuable materials like cobalt, which is increasingly being phased out in new battery chemistries.

The European Union’s Battery Directive aims to address these challenges by mandating the collection, treatment, and recycling of batteries within its member states. It sets forth ambitious recycling efficiency targets, including a 50 per cent recycling efficiency rate for lithium-ion batteries, to ensure that the battery industry progresses towards sustainability.

Moreover, a 2019 study published in the journal Nature highlights the potential for recovering up to 95 per cent of certain battery components using advanced recycling methods. This demonstrates the feasibility of high recovery rates for critical materials, which can reduce the need for virgin material extraction and lower the environmental impact of battery production.

Developing robust, efficient, and sustainable recycling infrastructures is essential to mitigate the impending strain on raw material supplies and to prevent environmental degradation. The task is multifaceted: it demands technological innovation to handle the diverse and evolving battery chemistries, strategic policy-making to incentivise recycling, and substantial investment to scale recycling operations. Given the stark environmental and resource implications highlighted in narratives and studies alike, it is paramount for global stakeholders to collaboratively forge pathways that lead to a circular economy for batteries, ensuring that the transition to electric mobility does not trade one ecological crisis for another.

Aditya Sinha (X: @adityasinha004) is officer on special duty, Research, Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister of India. Views Personal.

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