Electric Vehicles are gaining popularity in the developed world.
California just announced they sold 1 million EVs in a month, while a report by Bloomberg New Energy Finance
predicts a total of 5.6 million EVs will be sold worldwide in 2021.
This sounds like amazing progress towards electrifying our automobile fleet, but manufacturers need to start thinking about recycling EV batteries.
High Electric Vehicle market penetration may look great on paper, but there is a sinister consequence that we are ignoring.
More Electric Vehicles mean more industrial waste and more obsolete lithium-Ion batteries in 5 to 10 years when the current generation of Electric Vehicles will be discarded.
This is the time when we should proactively be thinking about life cycle waste associated with Electric Vehicle batteries and how recycling would not only be better for the environment, but profitable as well.
Electric Vehicles and the Materials That Power it
The battery pack is the most important component inside an electric vehicle.
It is the power source for the electric drive train as well as all the electronics inside an EV. It is analogous to the engine block of an internal combustion engine car. The range, power, and overall driving experience of an EV directly depend upon the battery pack.
In fact, one of the reasons Tesla is leading in the EV market is because they design and manufacture their own battery packs. Which allows their cars to have more range, more speed, and overall, more natural experience.
The issue is that battery packs for electric vehicles are materials lithium, cobalt, nickel, and rare earth minerals like neodymium and dysprosium that are hard to mine. But also, very toxic to the environment when they are mined from the earth. Mining these minerals can result in damage to the local water supply, kill local fauna, and pollute the soil.
Add to the fact that these materials are exhaustible, and we don’t have an infinite supply of these materials, it just makes sense that recycling batteries should be a top priority not just for the governments that enforce the regulation, but the companies that make battery packs and EVs.
I haven’t even touched the socio-political ramifications of mining these minerals. A lot of the minerals that are used in battery packs like Lithium naturally occur in South America. In fact, almost 50% of the world’s supply of lithium is concentrated in South America’s lithium triangle. The lithium triangle covers the country of Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile.
South America is not known for being politically stable. Depending on unstable areas for a vital material in your supply chain can be tricky. That still hasn’t stopped battery manufacturers from striking deals with local governments for extraction deals. But increased mining will result in more political unrest, thus making it even harder to depend upon these countries for a consistent supply of raw materials.
So, it makes even more sense that EV and battery manufacturers started investing to develop their supply chains around recycling the battery packs that have already been manufactured. Minerals like lithium inside those battery packs have already been mined. It just makes sense that we extract those materials instead of dumping them in a landfill when we are done, thus creating even more waste.
How Closed-Loop Systems can Recover 95% of Rare Earth Minerals From Obsolete Lithium-ion Batteries
Some companies like Tesla are already recycling their obsolete lithium-ion batteries through a closed-loop cycle. Tesla through proper life cycle waste planning has established a closed-loop system. They have a take-back and recycling scheme that has been integrated into the manufacturing process.
The recycling program at Tesla physically separates electronic components and cases to reuse and recycle. With a process like this, an estimated 92%
of the cobalt, nickel, and copper can be recovered from the obsolete lithium-ion batteries.
This means that an obsolete lithium-ion battery can be recycled to almost make a new battery from scratch. Increased recycling means that battery manufacturers are not solely dependent on raw material distributors from mining companies. Rather they have a new source of the materials they need to continue making their battery packs.
This diversified supply chain would not only make making battery packs cheaper, but it will also be more friendly to the environment.
Why Companies Should be Making Eco-Friendly Batteries That are Easy to Disassemble and Recycle
While the above example of Tesla sounds great, unfortunately not all EV manufacturers are doing the same. In fact, for some, it’s even beyond their capability. Tesla is a vertically integrated company, meaning they make most of the stuff used in their product by themselves.
So, Tesla manufacturers their own battery pack, albeit with help of manufacturers like Panasonic, but everything is done in-house. It is easier for them to have a battery call-back program, so they can properly recycle the batteries.
That is not the case for a lot of other EV manufacturers, that depend upon third-party battery pack manufacturers to supply them with the batteries. This means that a lot of the times battery packs are not optimized for recycling. Manufacturers instead opt to optimize for efficiency rather than disassembly and recycling.
By making battery packs sealed in, they are more efficient but also harder to properly recycle. EV and battery makers should lean more towards Eco-friendly designs of battery packs to make it easier to reclaim the raw minerals from the battery packs.