energy insights

EV Battery Recycling Technology Must Advance

By now, most of us are aware of the electric vehicle story. There are millions of us who own EVs or at least want to own one. We’ve seen them on the road, in our neighborhoods or at traffic lights. If nothing else, we’ve seen electric vehicles star in television commercials or we’ve read about them in the media.

We know about near-zero emissions, low maintenance costs, less noise and a lot of us even know that – from 0 to 60 mph – EVs are a heck of a lot quicker than their gas-powered counterparts. What is frequently underappreciated are the lithium-ion batteries, which are at the heart of all 10 million EVs being driven worldwide.

Aside from being the most expensive component of an electric vehicle, batteries can also be the most problematic once they wear out, and that’s an emerging issue in the industry.

Recycling technology must keep pace with EV growth

Only about 5% of all lithium batteries are recycled today, leaving the rest for disposal in landfills, where hazardous components can leach into soil and groundwater. There are growing efforts worldwide to reduce potential environmental damage by increasing recycling efforts, but efficacy and high cost remain a major hurdle.

The International Energy Agency estimates there will be 145 million electric vehicles in the world by 2030, leaving a torrent of depleted batteries in their wake. The European Union is working to address the battery disposal issue through new legislation, setting mandatory targets for recycling lithium, cobalt, nickel and other elements from EV batteries.

China has the fastest-growing EV battery recycling enterprise in the world, led by CATL, the global leader in lithium-ion battery manufacturing. A subsidiary of the company can recycle batteries from more than 200,000 EVs per year, but the process is inefficient, costly and requires financial and regulatory incentives by the government.

There are multiple hurdles that make recycling difficult, starting with the enormous size and weight of a single EV battery pack. The batteries also can be highly combustible, so storing and transporting them can be logistically challenging. The batteries are engineered for longevity and performance, but they’re not designed to be disassembled, which can make recycling them a laborious and dangerous process.

Most recycling operations use an energy-intensive method of shredding, melting and processing battery materials to recover the lithium, nickel and other reusable materials. While it’s being done more and more, recycling is not considered an economically sustainable practice, and any vision of lithium-ion battery recycling on a comprehensive scale seems distant, experts say.

Rising environmental and supply concerns with depleted batteries

Of course, environmental sustainability is a big reason why people purchase electric vehicles, so there are growing calls within the industry to make EV batteries more amenable to recycling.

But environmental sustainability is not the only motivation behind improved recycling practices. For a few years now, Tesla founder Elon Musk has led the campaign for increased supplies of lithium and other vital elements that go into EV batteries, and is once again entertaining the idea of purchasing his own lithium mines to procure resources.

As the number of depleted batteries continues to enhance operational scale and as engineering improves the economic calculus of recycling, we should see increased recycling. However, recycling can only replace a small portion of already existing materials. Although recycling is helpful and necessary, mining new materials is the only thing that will support the immense growth of the lithium battery and EV industries.