Rush to BEV Threatens Waste Battery Mountains

The rush to get motorists into BEVs could risk creating waste battery mountains because recycling technology does not keep pace with expected production levels.

That’s the finding of a UK university analysts’ study that says end-of-life lithium ion batteries (LIBs) could present the nation, and other countries too, “a huge waste management problem for the future”.

A review of lithium ion battery recycling led by the University of Birmingham suggests that governments and industry need to act to develop a robust recycling infrastructure to meet future recycling need. The study, carried out in collaboration with researchers at the universities of Newcastle and Leicester, is published in the current issue of Nature.

The issue of waste batteries is likely to increase with the automakers’ hoped-for increase in BEV take-up. Based on the 1M electric cars sold in 2017, researchers calculated that 250,000 metric tonnes, or 500,000 cubic meters, of unprocessed pack waste will result when these vehicles reach the end of their lives.

However, the study outlines a commercial opportunity from processing the waste quoting analysis by the Faraday Institution, an independent institute for electrochemical energy storage research, pointing to the need for eight gigafactories in the UK by 2040 to service the demand for LIBs. The UK will need to develop sources of supply for the critical materials required for these batteries and recycled material could play a important role.

The study identifies a number of challenges it says engineers and policy-makers will need to address, including:

  • Identifying second use applications for end of life batteries;
  • Developing rapid repair and recycling methods, given that large-scale storage of electric batteries is potentially unsafe;
  • Improving diagnostics of batteries, battery packs and battery cells, so the state of health of batteries can be assessed before repurposing;
  • Designing battery packs with a view to recycling to enable automated battery disassembly without risking human contact;
  • Designing stabilization processes that enable end-of-life batteries to be opened and separated and ways to ensure components are not contaminated during recycling.

Dr Gavin Harper, Faraday Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham, a lead author on the paper, said: “The recycling challenge is not straightforward: there is enormous variety in the chemistries, shapes and designs of lithium ion batteries used in EVs. Individual cells are formed into modules, which are then assembled into battery packs. To recycle these efficiently, they must be disassembled and the resulting waste streams separated. As well as lithium, these batteries contain a number of other valuable metals, such as cobalt, nickel and manganese, and there is the potential to improve the processes which are currently used to recover these for reuse.”

Professor Andrew Abbott, of the University of Leicester and co-author on the paper, added: “Electrification of just 2% of the current global car fleet would represent a line of cars that could stretch around the circumference of the Earth – some 140M vehicles. Landfill is clearly not an option for this amount of waste. Finding ways to recycle EV batteries will not only avoid a huge burden on landfill, it will also help us secure the supply of critical materials, such as cobalt and lithium, that surely hold the key to a sustainable automotive industry.”

— Paul Myles is a seasoned automotive journalist based in London. Follow him on Twitter @Paulmyles_

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