According to McKinsey & Company, by 2040, about 20,500 kilotons of used electric vehicle batteries will enter the recycling stream each year. This is equivalent to the weight of a fully-loaded Boeing 747 every 11 minutes and is a significant increase from the 50 kilotons in 2020. As a result, battery recycling companies are busy building facilities to prepare for this increase in demand.
Recycling EV batteries is not only environmentally beneficial but also necessary, says Alessandra R. Carreon, the sustainable mobility leader at Rocky Mountain Institute. “We can’t really mine our way to meet demand, especially in North America,” she explains. With demand for EVs and their batteries increasing rapidly, and larger EVs like SUVs requiring even bigger batteries, mining alone won’t be able to supply enough battery material.
Recycling plays a central role in an electrified future, as it has clear advantages over mining. pound for pound, recycled battery material typically emits much less greenhouse gas than an equivalent amount of mined material. In addition to its environmental benefits, recycling will also play a pivotal role in manufacturing and ownership.
In the future, owning a vehicle may fundamentally change as the need to secure often rare battery materials becomes increasingly important. As we continue to transition towards an electrified future, recycling is not simply a matter of preference or politics but necessity.
The Importance of Battery Recycling for EVs
While electric vehicles (EVs) are gaining momentum, gas-powered vehicles still make up the majority of new vehicle sales. In fact, according to Cox Automotive, gas vehicles still made up 93% of new vehicle sales in the first three months of 2023. However, as demand for EVs increases, so does demand for lithium – the primary component in electric vehicle batteries.
The International Energy Agency reports that demand for lithium is already outstripping supply, despite lithium production nearly doubling since 2017. Redwood Materials, a battery recycling company, suggests that demand for lithium-ion batteries will grow fivefold in the next decade.
This is where battery recycling comes into play. It provides a way to offset the shortage of lithium and other battery materials. Recycling batteries also makes economic sense as the cost of producing batteries is still relatively high. For example, a modest 50-kWh battery could cost $7,500 to produce.
Recycling a battery begins with collection. Batteries are heavy and can weigh thousands of pounds. They don’t simply pop out of a car like a battery on a cordless drill. This makes collection challenging, especially when considering that even non-working batteries can carry a dangerous charge.
Cost-conscious consumers should be rooting for the success of battery recycling as it could help bring down the cost of batteries and EVs overall. While recycled content cannot completely replace mined minerals yet, Carreon from Redwood Materials believes that eventually, recycled content will be able to offset mined minerals.
As the demand for EVs continues to grow, it is important to consider the role that battery recycling plays in the industry’s sustainability.
Reimagined Battery Recycling Methods
When it comes to batteries, recycling and reuse offer an alternative to the costly and environmentally damaging process of mining raw materials. By processing old batteries to their raw elements such as lithium or cobalt, recycling can isolate nearly pure elements that then become the building blocks for new batteries.
As well as addressing environmental concerns, recycling also reduces greenhouse gas emissions by up to 90% compared to mining new material. Recycling could even change the way in which car owners think about their vehicles. With the value of metals significantly higher in an electric vehicle, we may soon see automakers prioritizing recycling methods to reclaim materials and offer incentives to customers should they choose to return their batteries in exchange for benefits.
Additionally, another way to give old electric vehicle batteries a new lease on life is by repurposing them for other uses. In cases where batteries are unfit for use in a car, they can still be used for other applications.
All things considered, recycling and reusing old batteries is crucial in paving the way for sustainable electric vehicle production.
Storing Excess Energy: A Sustainable Solution
As we move towards a greener future, the storage of excess energy is becoming an increasingly important challenge to solve. One answer lies in storing electricity when there is an ample supply and releasing it back to the grid during peak hours, thus reducing the need to generate additional power.
Tesla, among others, has been building storage systems using new batteries, but it turns out that used batteries can be just as effective. The company B2U, short for “Battery 2nd Use,” built a battery storage site in Lancaster, California, utilizing 1,300 used batteries from Honda and Nissan. These old EV batteries are capable of storing up to 25 megawatt hours of power – enough to sustainably power over 800 households for a day.
A Need for Investment
Though the second life use of EV batteries is a promising step towards creating a sustainable future, the EV battery recycling industry in the United States is not yet ready to handle the millions of end-of-life batteries that will exist in ten years. Mario Carreon, Director of Communications at Li-Cycle, highlights the necessity of investing in recycling facilities now to prepare for the 1.5 million EVs sold in the US in the last four years alone.
Timing is everything. Building too much recycling capacity too soon risks overwhelming businesses, while building too little too late risks overwhelming the industry. However, establishing the right amount of recycling capacity allows both businesses and the industry as a whole to grow sustainably while reinforcing our collective commitment to a greener future.
The Future of Recycling End-of-Life Batteries
The world is shifting towards electric vehicles, and with it comes the need for smarter ways to recycle end-of-life batteries. According to experts in the field, the mystery surrounding how long these batteries actually last, and what happens to them when they reach their end-of-life, still needs to be solved.
But that’s not all. As the industry scales, a few other important factors need to be addressed:
Design with recycling in mind
Designing batteries with recycling in mind is the first step towards building a sustainable industry. Battery and auto manufacturers can play their part by making it easier and safer to remove and disassemble battery components. The easier it is to process a battery, the more value it retains, and the more likely it is to be recycled.
Government regulation and industry coordination can build a smoother process for recycling batteries. Manufacturers, recyclers, and other stakeholders need to define their roles and responsibilities clearly. This process needs to be consistent throughout the country, so consumers are not burdened with figuring out what to do with their battery when it reaches the end of its life.
A complete domestic supply chain
Recycling is not enough; recycled battery materials must be transformed into new batteries. Although the United States has final assembly plants for new batteries, there is a serious lack of midstream capacity and processing facilities. This means that materials need to be exported, and subcomponents must then be imported.
As the world shifts towards greener technologies, end-of-life batteries will play a crucial role in shaping the future of sustainability. The industry needs to act fast and make the necessary changes to establish a robust and sustainable recycling ecosystem.