How recyclable are electric car batteries?

Neelesh Vasistha Feb 23, 2021 · 5 min read

Before EVs help save the world, they have one hulking flaw to address: their batteries. The life and death of these batteries are fraught with issues of sustainability: both in the materials they’re made from, and how they’re disposed of. Incinerating them, or sending them to landfill, is dirty. It pollutes lakes and streams, leaches into groundwater, and generally exposes the environment to nasty acids and bases. This sets a tall challenge for the industry: if the golden USP that EVs protect the environment is to last, battery recyclability becomes a key issue.

What are governments doing?

Safe battery disposal has itched politicians for over a decade. In the EU, the Batteries Directive was created to minimize the environmental impact of batteries and waste batteries, while lubricating the internal market by harmonizing standards. Sadly, it was deemed unsuccessful by the EU’s own evaluation. Although most member states reached their 2012 waste batteries collection targets of 25%, only 14 of them reached their 2016 goal of 45%. The legislation also needed swift revision to meet the steep projected rise of electric vehicle sales.

Luckily, this comes packed into the European Green Deal. Its macro-objectives are ambitious: kill net greenhouse gases by 2050, uncouple economic growth from resource use, and ensure ‘no person and no place is left behind’. The European Battery Alliance translates these objectives into legislation. Specifically, this includes raising battery collection to 70% by 2030, and proposing mandatory requirements for all batteries, with a heavy focus on sustainable materials, high performance and recyclability. In China too, where half of the world’s EV are sold, the government has stepped up — implementing a new rule to make carmakers liable for expired batteries.

Of health and afterlife

Batteries degrade over time, it’s a chemical inevitability like aging. And there’s a handy figure to track this degradation: the state of health. Typically, this number is 100% at the time of manufacture and will decrease over time and use. As degradation doesn’t link to any physical quality, there’s no consensus on how it’s measured. It can vary between companies, even becoming a trade secret. Often, it uses one or more factors like capacity, age or ability to discharge.

When the state of health for an EV battery falls by 20%, they are replaced. This still leaves 80% capacity: high enough to be repurposed for less-demanding applications. According to Geotab, on average an EV battery will degrade by 2.3% per year. Much industry chatter around this topic involves creating a ‘second life’ for electric batteries, or giving them a retirement purpose once they fall beneath EV performance standards. It’s also clean. Graded second-life battery packs can provide reliable and convenient energy storage options for diverse purposes: from electric roaming, to products that let customers store the solar energy they generate. Crucially, these forms of storage create intermittent renewable energy sources on the grid, without putting security of supply at risk.

Carmakers begin rubbing hands

Motivated by profit and industry incentives, the idea of a second life already has carmakers forging strategic alliances. BMW intends to lay a fully sustainable supply chain, announcing its partnership with Umicore, a materials processing company, to develop battery reuse and recycling systems. And Daimler has joined its subsidiary, Mercedes-Benz Energy, to launch projects using EV battery packs for stationary energy storage. They’ve helped turn a retired coal plant in Germany into an energy storage facility using almost 2,000 modules from EV battery packs.

In 2015, Nissan became the first EV manufacturer to move beyond experiments and pilot projects, launching a full-scale commercial business with startup Green Charge Networks. Here, the batteries come from Nissan’s Leaf electric vehicles, and are reused in non-automotive applications for lower energy costs.

Startups join the fray

Of course, where there is money to be made, startups will emerge. RePurpose hatched from a decade of research at UC Davis. They work to deftly disassemble EV batteries, usually from Nissan, determine their state of health, before reassembling them with new controls and safety equipment.

By replacing the most degraded cells in the battery, it gains a fresh 12 years of life for non-EV applications, based on the startup’s calculations. The game is finding the bad cells. RePurpose’s method can test for battery degradation in about a minute — a process that usually takes a full day.

Smartville Energy is also an academic brainchild. This startup from UC San Diego has developed a refurbishing process for various batteries, which could be critical in scaling this technology. Rather than accelerating the battery testing process like other startups, Smartville’s proprietary converters and conditioning process intentionally slows the testing. This balances the health of the batteries across the entire system.

Northvolt, a company started by former Tesla executives, has developed a method of recycling that, if scaled, could make a heavy contribution to tackling the climate crisis. When a spent battery arrives at their recycling center, they safely dismantle it, before crushing it in an airtight vacuum to avoid contamination. This crushed material is then sorted, using magnets to separate magnetic from non-magnetic metals. All that remains is a black power rich in nickel, manganese, cobalt, lithium hydroxide and graphite. Placing this in an acid bath separates the black powder from the minerals, distilling all the elements needed to reconstitute a new battery.

Sustainable means recyclable

Safe battery recycling is not only an environmental duty, but a nascent market. Luckily, manufacturers and governments are proactive in tackling the growing concerns around battery waste. Building a robust legal framework today will help regulate the second-life battery boom of tomorrow. Indeed, only once the battery issue is solved, completely and everywhere, will EVs truly be able to boast an untarnished superiority to traditional cars. As players in this industry, as well as residents of earth, we at Chargetrip hope this comes sooner rather than later.