Urgent Need to Improve BEV Recycling

The ‘Lithium Rush’ has begun in earnest. In early February, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz travelled to Chile to negotiate a deal for access to one of the world’s largest reserves of lithium, to feed the appetite of German EV producers.

According to the US Geological Survey, Chile has some 11M metric tons of lithium reserves, the fourth largest deposit of the mineral in the world, behind those of Bolivia, Argentina and the US. Less than two weeks earlier, Bolivia’s state-owned Yacimientos de Litio Bolivianos had signed a $1Bn agreement with the Chinese consortium CATL BRUNP & CMOC to explore lithium deposits in the country. Bolivia has the world’s largest lithium reserves, estimated at 21M tons.

With the sales of BEVs starting to take off, there will certainly be more such efforts to mine the world’s lithium deposits but mining can be hazardous to the environment. A recent report warned that a lithium mining boom could lead to “social and environmental harm, in many cases irreversibly damaging landscapes”, unless alleviating measures were taken, “such as reducing car dependence, decreasing the size of EV batteries and maximizing lithium recycling”. For example, nickel mining and smelting operations in Indonesia have polluted vital fishing waters.

The EU will soon have new regulations to guide the entire life cycle of a battery, from production to reuse and recycling. Included in the agreement is a target for lithium recovery from waste batteries of 50% by 2027 and 80% in 2031. According to Philippe Decrock, legal and public affairs manager at Bebat a Belgian company that collects and sorts batteries and prepares them for re-use or recycling, these regulations will also harmonize battery standards across the EU. “It means you will have to follow the battery from its coming on the market to its end-of-life,” he said.

Each EV battery module will have to have a digital passport containing technical and other information, such as the history of its charge cycle. “And carmakers will be obligated to give this data for free,” Decrock said. “Otherwise the battery cannot be reused or recycled.” In addition, recycling companies will be obligated to report what materials they have recovered from a battery and what percentage of certain materials have been reused in the production of new batteries, he noted, adding: “The carmaker will have to make sure the battery is traceable and that the reverse logistics has been organized.”

For countries in the EU, this is difficult because European carmakers are confronted with different battery take-back obligations in different countries. “So, it is difficult to arrange it for one manufacturer because they also have different products on the market,” Decrock said.

That is why Bebat and four other, similar, European companies formed Reneos, a cooperative that manages the collection, transport and management of EV batteries from the time the EV hits the market, not only in the EU but also in countries of the European Economic Area and outside of Europe, such as Israel and Turkey.

“Reneos organizes the take-back obligations of the batteries, mostly through the brand’s dealer network,” Decrock explained. “It reports to them which battery by serial number has been collected by which dealer and in which country and how it is treated or recycled afterwards.”

After a used battery has been collected, it is transported to a dismantling center, where it is dismantled to module level, then tests it to see if the module is apt for reuse. If it is not, it will be sent to a recycling company.

The European car manufacturer, who pays for the recycling, is able to follow its entire cycle. “Reneos has an IT platform to which the dealers and the carmakers have access,” Decrock said. “So, the carmaker has an overview and a dashboard where they can see where their batteries are, which of their batteries have been collected from what vehicles, and if it has been collected, is stored or already recycled.”

However, this infrastructure will be drastically underused until at least 2030. The reason is that the life of an EV battery is about ten years, which means that for at least a decade there will not be enough used batteries to recycle to meet more than a small percentage of the raw materials needed for Europe’s EVs. That means recycling companies will not have enough EV batteries in its facilities until the end of the decade.

“If we see how many EVs are put on the market today and how many will be put on the market in 2030, there will be a lack of recycling capacity in Europe,” Decrock said. “We will need 20 to 25 times the battery capacity we have today if we want to have enough recycled EV batteries in 2030.”

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