Are Electric Car Batteries Recyclable?

What happens to those big batteries when they reach their end of life?

Mehanic doing service on electric car battery
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The electric vehicle (EV) battery recycling industry is still in its infancy since most EVs have been on the road for fewer than five years. But by 2040, there could be approximately 200,000 metric tons of lithium-ion batteries that need to be disposed of, recycled, or reused.

Without robust recycling, the world faces a highly toxic problem on its hands. With it, the environmental benefits of electric vehicles increase even more.

The Importance of EV Battery Recycling

Lithium-ion batteries are the key component in an electric vehicle. They are the most expensive component of EVs and require a supply chain that can have human rights and environmental costs.

While electric vehicles emit no greenhouse gases during operation, the manufacturing process can contribute up to 25% of the total global warming emissions in the life cycle of the vehicle.

Keeping lithium-ion batteries out of landfills is essential because of their toxicity and flammability. Recycling and reusing EV batteries can play a large role in reducing the need for new lithium, cobalt, and nickel. The mining of these materials has negative impacts on the environment and local communities, including soil, air, and water pollution.

Challenges to Recycling

EV battery chemistry varies from model to model. While lithium-ion batteries have been in commercial use since 1991, the technology is still changing rapidly, but what EV batteries will look like in 2030 is an open question.

Another challenge is the many shapes that the batteries come in. Unlike ordinary batteries, EV batteries do not come in uniform sizes and shapes. Rather, individual battery cells are arranged in modules that are themselves organized in a pack sealed with nearly unbreakable glues.

With so many different form factors, disassembling and recycling each one can take hours, raising the cost of the materials to the point where it's currently cheaper for manufacturers to buy new materials than recycled ones.

Reuse Before Recycle

Batteries lose roughly 2.3% of their energy capacity annually, so a 12-year-old battery might have 76% of its original storage capacity.

Energy storage, itself a booming industry, can repurpose these batteries after the EV itself has reached the end of its life. They can be used as energy storage devices in residences, as utility-scale storage to provide resilience to the electricity grid, or even to power robots. Reuse can double the useful lifetime of the batteries, at which point, they can be recycled.

The EV Battery Recycling Process

Currently, battery recycling is performed one pack at a time. The packs must first have their glues broken apart to access the individual cells. Then the cells can either be burned or dissolved in a pool of acid, producing either a lump of charred materials or a slurry of potentially toxic ones.

Burning requires immense amounts of energy while using solvents poses health risks. Other, less harmful or energy-intensive methods, such as using water, are still in the research and development stage. Currently, simple manual disassembly yields a higher rate (80%) of materials recovery than either fire or solvents.

Recyclers extract the valuable cobalt and nickel in batteries, as lithium and graphite are too readily available. As new chemistries emerge, especially those that seek to reduce the use of cobalt, one main source of recyclers' income may be lost. Another source of income in the recycling process can be recycling a battery's anode and cathode intact, rather than breaking them down into their component materials.

Policies for EV Battery Recycling

Ample legislation covering the manufacturing, use, and recycling of lithium-ion batteries already exists. These can easily be expanded to make EV batteries part of a circular economy.

Labeling

Labeling is key for efficient recycling. Most EV battery packs contain no information about the chemistry of the anode, cathode, or electrolyte, meaning recyclers are left in the dark.

Like the resin ID code (the number inside the triangle) on plastics, content labels on batteries will allow them to be mechanically sorted and processed, lowering costs and improving recycling rates.

The U.S.-based Society of Automotive Engineers, which established standards for battery charging infrastructure, has recommended labeling, too.

Design Standards

For many products, end-of-life considerations fall upon the consumer, not the manufacturer. Incorporating design standards into the manufacturing process is difficult in a nascent and disruptive industry like electric vehicles.

However, design standards will eventually emerge by government regulation or from within the industry itself. They are already been a successful part of recycling efforts in mature markets like aluminum, glass, car catalysts, and lead-acid batteries.

Co-Location

Batteries are heavy and expensive to ship, so producing them close to automotive manufacturing centers is another consideration.

Co-locating battery recycling industries with EV manufacturing can greatly reduce the cost of EVs and reduce their life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions.

Closing the Loop

The recycling of lead-acid batteries should give EV battery manufacturers, recyclers, and policymakers a model to emulate. Between 95-99% of lead-acid batteries are currently recycled, in large part because they are made of a standard mixture of materials enclosed in a single case.

With improvements in technologies and better coordination of the entire life cycle of lithium-ion batteries, the Union of Concerned Scientists predicts that the United States can reduce its reliance on demand for mined resources from foreign sources by 30% to 40% by 2030.

Closing the loop between EV battery manufacturing and recycling will make electric vehicles an even more sustainable alternative to gasoline-powered cars.

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