When one thinks of the increasing uptake of electric vehicles (EVs), an inevitable question is what will happen to them when they reach their end of life?
How should we deal with the possible deluge of e-waste in a way that minimizes the harm to the environment?
It’s not only cars that will be electrified, but trucks, buses, motorcycles, scooters, ships, and even aeroplanes are essential if we transition to a cleaner and fossil fuel-free future and fight climate change.
In contrast to EVs, materials from petrol and diesel cars are 95% recyclable. Still, since EVs have different configurations, it is enclosed in complex electrical components consisting of various materials such as lithium and cobalt inside the batteries, and rare-earth metals in motors make its recycling a complex task.
Additionally, an EV’s battery pack is made from several electrochemical cells that can be configured in various ways, and the battery chemistry differs from one battery to another.
Standardising car batteries with recycling in mind
Standardizing the configuration of car batteries and designing them with recycling in mind seems to be the logical solution. This way, breaking apart valuable parts like cathodes and electrical connections to recover copper would allow reusing the materials in a purer form. It will also reduce the number of materials thrown in to be shredded, which is a more efficient and sustainable recycling method.
Recycling cobalt, an essential element of lithium-ion batteries and boosts the battery’s energy density and life, is also crucial because it will reduce the need to mine this element. Two-thirds of the cobalt supply comes from Congo, where the supply chain is linked to human rights and environmental abuses – another reason why some carmakers wanted to eliminate the cobalt (Patel, 2020).
A group of researchers from the University of Texas at Austin came up with a high-performance cobalt-free battery. The battery consists of 89% nickel, with aluminum and manganese comprising the rest. Lab-testing provides very encouraging results in terms of the battery’s energy density and charge cycles.
Click the link to read more: Lithium-ion batteries go cobalt free
Recycling lithium-ion batteries
Thankfully, recycling industries are popping worldwide to cater to the demand for recycling EVs according to the Economist article.
Because lithium-ion batteries are highly flammable, they are crushed separately in special machines and elements that suppress combustion, producing a result known as the “black mass”.
“Black Mass” is further processed to extract valuable components using two main extraction methods: pyrometallurgy and hydrometallurgy.
Pyrometallurgy uses a furnace to separate pure metals such as cobalt. But this method is energy-intensive and destroys most of the valuable components like graphite.
The latter, hydrometallurgy, use acids and solvents to dissolve metals, including lithium. This method requires less energy and allows the recovery of non-metallic materials like graphite.
However, using this method requires additional costs in treating wastewater to avoid pollution. According to the article, this is the favoured recycling method of the two.
Recycling Industries in the world
The article mentions the following EV recyclers around the world. Canada’s Li-Cycle relies on hydrometallurgy and can recycle up to 95% of the materials in battery which can then be used directly to make new batteries. The company sends other parts of the EVs like plastic and copper to other recyclers.
Redwood Materials, based in Nevada, uses a mixture of pyrometallurgy and hydrometallurgy for recycling.
Two lithium-ion batteries makers: Northvolt based in Sweden and American Battery Technology based in Nevada, expanded their operations to include a recycling facility to recycle their batteries to recover lithium and other metals from expired batteries.
However, the largest recyclers are in China, according to the article. The country is the biggest EV manufacturers and should rightly follow that they should have the technology to recycle them with encouragement from their government.
Australia’s EcoGrap extracts graphite from black mass to be reused to make anodes. South Korea’s SungEel HiTech is also building a facility that does the same thing.
In the end, what would help these recyclers all over the world to efficiently and sustainably recycle EVs is that battery-makers design them with recycling in mind.
Frank Blome, head of batteries at Volkswagen, says that their battery experts are working with its recyclers to make their tasks easier, adding that “anyone who takes something apart must first know how it was put together.”
To read the entire Economist article, click the link below:
Old electric cars are a raw material of the future. (2021, May 15). The Economist. Retrieved from https://www.economist.com/science-and-technology/2021/05/13/old-electric-cars-are-a-raw-material-of-the-future
Patel, P. (2020, July 22). Lithium-ion batteries go cobalt-free. C&en. Retrieved from https://cen.acs.org/energy/energy-storage-/Lithium-ion-batteries-cobalt-free/98/i29