Electric Vehicle Batteries - What’s the Catch to This Eco-Friendly Plan?
The first of a three-part blog post series exploring EV batteries’ end of life challenges
Nissan Leaf, Tesla Model X, Hyundai Ioniq, Renault Zoe and a few others - beacons of light shining an environmental optimism in a fossil fuel-driven world. With advanced technologies promising a better tomorrow - it seems that the environment will be able to sigh a breath of relief. Everyone is lending a hand to the cause - nations are pledging their commitment to going electric, leading auto OEMs are showcasing their best and brightest, and consumer interest is skyrocketing.
However, there is a major asterisk hanging over this optimism. Lithium-ion batteries are neither invincible nor immortal; after 7-10 years of use they deteriorate and can no longer reliably start a vehicle and sustain consistent movement. Where do these batteries go and what do we do with them? Unfortunately, the answer is not as simple as throwing them in the nearest dump or even tossing them into your neighborhood recycling bin.
Fantastic Scale - Just to get some perspective, here are the numbers:
By 2040 over half of the new-car sales and a third of the global fleet - 559 million vehicles will be electric. With this leap, our landfills could exceed approximately 3.4 million battery packs by 2025, vs. the 55,000 in 2018. Western countries are currently each recycling 5% or less of used li-ion batteries (vehicles being only a small part of this number), when these same countries have proclaimed their goal to be 50% or more.
To put in simple terms - the math doesn’t quite add up and pretty soon we could be dealing with more batteries than we can handle. With such a stark shift in the vehicle market, a lithium-based solution instead of gasoline is exciting and promising, so long as we are not substituting one problem for another.
Thermal Instability - While li-on batteries aren’t nearly as toxic as their lead-acid counterpart (which have proven capable of leading to a long list of catastrophic health concerns) lithium is exceptionally flammable and can have a thermal reaction if mishandled. You may have heard about the notorious explosions in Apple and Samsung devices - the concept is similar here, only instead of a battery that can fit in your palm, it's a battery that needs a crane. Other than being exceptionally unsustainable, a stockpile of EV batteries in a landfill is an unwanted fire hazard to say the least. Since we’d rather avoid minefield landfills, significant resources need to be taken into account for proper dismantling, transportation and disposal.
Natural Resource Exhaustion - another concern is the eventual exhaustion of natural resources. While lithium exists in heaps, and is relatively cheap (for now), cobalt, nickel and manganese are not nearly as abundant. If the habit of using EV batteries ends up being like tissues - where you use one and quickly snatch another out of the box, we may find ourselves in yet another environmental pickle, not to mention the cost spike and dependency that would result from an increasingly rare natural resource.
Additionally, the mining industry for these precious metals has its own pollution emissions consequences and poses an ethical dilemma. There has been significant criticism for violation of child labor laws for mining in the Republic of Congo, from where approximately 70% of the world’s cobalt supply originates.
For reasons that we will delve into in the next post, it looks like the precious metal mining industry (namely cobalt) will need a real hero to save it from being taken advantage of and depleted. Even if the prices of cobalt itself continue to increase, they will have little effect on the overall price of the battery, making it all the more convenient to continue producing new ones and allowing room for complacency when it comes to progress in finding innovative options.
The problem at hand is larger than any of the individual challenges listed above - they are symptoms of a bigger problem that has to do with a shift in ecosystems. For the past century, with Internal Combustion Engines (ICE) vehicles, the challenges were known, and there was infrastructure in place to face them; industrial entities were well defined, and roles well-established. To solve the problems associated with EV batteries, the industry must undergo a systematic maturation process that involves lifecycle support, establishment of value chain, regulation, bilateral relationships, and more.
Part of addressing the problem is getting to the root of responsibility. It is identifying who plays the role of the enforcer, the financer, the executor - even the potential benefactor. Who is responsible for when things go wrong - when landfills are at full capacity, raw materials are exhausted and money is lost? On the flip side, who sees the money when EV battery innovation utilization takes off?
The answer is incomplete, complex and varies from region to region - with China and the EU largely placing responsibility on the automakers to collect and either dispose of, recycle or reuse batteries per regulation while financing it all. Whereas in the US, there is a lack of federal regulation, and the answer is unclear - automakers are responsible for making sure there is a facility where batteries can be recycled, yet most of the practical burden of the battery end-life falls into the unqualified hands of the car owner.
The rise in the use and sales of EVs solves a main gasoline-based problem, yet has the potential to open a whole new can of worms. It may be difficult to grasp the gravity of the problem at hand because of how new of an issue this is - most EVs on the market today haven’t even reached the end of their first life. One thing is becoming clear: preparation is key - countries will benefit from planning and preparation, auto OEMs may gain from leading regulatory efforts, and innovators need to be ready with creative solutions. There may be a fundamental advantage to the collaboration between all players involved - corporate, non-profit, startup, municipal, etc.
In the next post we will talk about the two main courses of action that we are seeing today with depleted EV batteries - landfilling, or recycling, their pros, cons and everything in between.
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 around EV batteries lifecycle.