The second of a three-part blog post series exploring EV batteries’ end of life challenges
Albert Einstein said it best - matter can neither be created nor destroyed. In other words, new EV batteries are mass produced every day, they don’t cease to exist the day they stop working. The capacity in which batteries in circulation continue is the domino effect of many different players and components, from the cobalt mines in Africa, to the disposal facility in Belgium.
As discussed in our previous post, EV batteries experience a slow degradation in performance, up to a certain point where the battery is no longer viable for driving (such as insufficient range or inefficient charging). When this happens, the vehicle battery is considered to have finished its “first life”. This insinuates that the battery could have a “second life”, or alternative purpose. At this point, the options are to recycle it, discard it, or repurpose it (giving it that “second life”).
In this post we will explore the factors that make EV battery recycling more complicated than it may seem at first glance, and explain the potential reasons behind why the fate of so many first life batteries is to reach the landfill.
What are the contributing factors to battery disposal?
It’s hard to talk about EV battery recycling without first addressing the elephant in the room - besides the clear environmental advantage, recycling is a time and resource-intensive venture. What is preventing us from discarding a used battery, mining new raw materials, and starting fresh after every old battery has run its course? This question is not trivial, and the answer directly impacts the future market of battery recycle and reuse.
Recycling is easier said than done. When it is more convenient and/or inexpensive to get rid of batteries than to recycle them, throwing away may become the default. Despite the batteries’ high flammability levels and potential for explosion, discarding them remains at least somewhat legal. We can identify four main factors that may directly or indirectly contribute to the discarding of batteries.
1. Too many kinds of batteries - lack of standardization
Each battery is designed by its manufacturer, oftentimes in cooperation with the automotive OEM, they tailor it to fit the OEM’s EV model. This creates various versions of batteries and paks, making it more complex to establish a standard recycling protocol and infrastructure. Once again, the more inconveniences associated with the recycling process the more impact on battery discarding rates.
2. Battery pricing - the affordability of new batteries may threaten the incentives for recycling
In the past decade, the prices of batteries have plummeted a whopping 80-85% and are predicted to continue dropping. This is due to more mass-producing factories and manufacturers getting better at what they do in anticipation of a surge in EV use.
Surprisingly, the cost drivers are the tools to assemble batteries and not the natural metals themselves. The impact that rising prices of lithium, cobalt, nickel or manganese have is negligible, making battery manufacturers more motivated than ever for production and mass sales.
3. Immature regulation and infrastructure
By 2030, we’d like to believe aspects such as maintaining and charging an electric vehicle will be as easy and simple as doing so today for internal combustion engine cars. However, ICE vehicles have been the default for over a century, it may take some time to achieve the same level of seamlessness when it comes to EVs.
Implementing systematic change is rarely easy, and as we spoke a bit about in the previous post, in order to teach the old (petroleum mobility world) “dog” new tricks, a chain reaction should occur. First and foremost, the catalyst of the chain reaction is the need, which we’ve already made clear - we don’t want mountain ranges of flammable EV batteries in our landfills. Next to take the lead are legislators - without their push, the EV battery market is at risk of being steered by profit and convenience alone, which might lead us to a problem given the economical convenience of battery manufacturing with continuously falling prices. Once a rulebook is established, (e.g. maximum amount of batteries an OEM is allowed to discard per year, limitations on mining precious metals, regulation of battery manufacturing, charging infrastructure, emission standards, etc.) the ecosystem for recycling will not only most likely be more convenient (as well as EV use in general), more importantly, battery disposal will be all the more inconvenient.
Whether it’s the transformation of gas stations or building partnerships for recycling, all players in this industry need to go back to the drawing board - legislators, oil companies, OEMs, landfills, etc.
4. The cost-effectiveness of the recycling business model
Initial data places the efficiency of li-ion recycling into question - with the cost of fully recycling a battery falling towards €1 per kg (approx. €10 per kilowatt-hour), this is still, in some cases a bit higher than what can be expected from selling the reclaimed materials on the market. An additional financial hurdle is that the lithium extraction process from first-life batteries is currently 5 times more expensive than mined lithium itself. These operations are carried out in large energy-intensive commercial facilities; the plants are costly to build and operate and require sophisticated equipment to treat harmful emissions generated by the smelting (high-temperature melting-and-extraction) process. Additionally, the location and network of recycling plants must be carefully thought out, considering the high costs of battery and material storage and transportation; logistically speaking, the model must make sense as well.
The combination of rapidly developing innovation and an immature industry presents the auto electrification revolution with inevitable growing pains. Until the recycling process and industry become better defined and mechanized within the automotive ecosystem, it may very well leave the mainstream option for battery energy to be mining. This is where second-life batteries come in, offering an interim solution of sorts, cushioning the lag for the time it takes for the industry to adjust.
All of the following are needed to push the industry to adopt recycling in scale: clarity in regulation, making battery and material transportation convenient and cost-effective, introducing innovation into battery storage and logistics, and taking the battery's future responsibility off the consumer and placing it on OEMs.
Bottom line, there is no definitive answer on the economic success of EV battery recycling because it is simply too early to tell which of the many hypothetical business models will be the most effective - there are many unknown variables. Recycling companies are taking a calculated risk on the basis that the market will be flooded with used batteries within a short period of time, and there will be demand for a solution to this problem. It is difficult to predict the cost, regulation, and margin for advancement in recycling technology.
In many cases, the option of recycling a battery may still be the second or third choice, but the battery can still be given a second life in other ways, and increase its lifetime value. In our next post, we will explore second-life and battery innovation opportunities that will potentially propel forward the EV world.
As always, DRIVETLV is looking for innovative ways to disrupt the mobility and automotive industry, feel free to reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org with comments, ideas, or solutions related to this 3 blog post series about the EV battery end-of-life aspects.