Running on EV: The race to solve lithium-ion battery recycling before it’s too late

January 28, 2020, 10:00 AM UTC

Late last year, the Japanese chemist Akira Yoshino won the Nobel Prize for his instrumental work in developing stable lithium-ion batteries, which are found in everything from mobile phones to electric vehicles. But after winning the award, Yoshino, 71, cautioned that there was more work to be done. To satisfy the extraordinary demand for rechargeable batteries—and the limited quantities of raw materials needed to make them—industry must devise solutions for recycling them. Especially as EVs, as they’re known, become more widely adopted.

Battery-powered electric vehicles are primed to be a significant presence on the road in the next decade. Estimates for exactly how many EVs will sell vary by millions, depending on the source. (Yoshino, for one, predicts that by 2025, about 15% of new cars sold will be EVs.) The truth is that no one really knows at what rate EV adoption will occur. What is clear is that EVs are coming soon, and en masse. Whenever that happens, the fate of the many millions of used lithium-ion batteries that power these vehicles will become an urgent environmental issue.

“If you talk about the future and battery recycling, it’s one of my biggest concerns,” says Adrian Hallmark, chairman and CEO of Bentley Motors.

Demand for EVs has steadily increased over the past decade. The splashy arrival of Tesla’s pricey Model S sedan in 2012 seemed to ignite interest in the all-electric category. In 2016, General Motors began selling the mass-market positioned Chevrolet Bolt, a subcompact spiritual successor to its pioneering hybrid Volt sedan from nearly a decade before, helping to broaden the appeal of the all-electric. But it was the (admittedly rocky) 2017 launch of Tesla’s Model 3—a $35,000 sedan aimed at the middle of the market and widely considered to be the company’s ride to sustainable economies of scale—where EV chatter reached a fever pitch.

Today, automakers of all sizes are working to show the public that they are on board with electric vehicles in every segment, from pickup trucks to full-size SUVs. Most major manufacturers have a partially or fully electric vehicle coming to market in the next two years; more than a dozen models are expected to go on sale in the U.S. next year. The movement is hardly limited to North America, either: Automakers in China, the world’s largest automotive market, are leading the globe in electric vehicle development. More than a million EVs sold in the country in 2018, according to estimates—more than triple the number in the U.S.

Still, the question remains: What to do with all of those batteries?

On the precipice without knowing it

Americans can be forgiven for thinking that the battery recycling problem is a long ways away. Electric vehicles constitute only about 2% of the U.S. market, notes Jay Whitacre, the director of Wilton E. Scott Institute for Energy Innovation at Carnegie Mellon University.

“We’re not close to the tipping point yet. The actual percent of electric vehicles that are on the road right now in the world is extremely small,” says Whitacre, who spent two decades researching batteries. “Now, in 2030, if we actually are fielding 25 million electric vehicles per year, that’s about four and a half million metric tons of battery material. That’s about one-fifth of the global annual production of aluminum.”

In other words, we’ve been consumed with finding alternatives to petroleum when we really ought to be worried about better understanding the commodities that will help usher in a new automobile age. In the future, our streets will be powered by lithium, not fueled by gasoline. Why aren’t we more concerned about the ramifications of this change?

Indeed, it will take years before people begin to notice the pileup of spent lithium-ion batteries—and then it may be too late to stem the tide. “We really don’t have many end-of-life batteries that aren’t covered by warranty right now,” says Jeff Spangenberger, director of the ReCell Center in Chicago. He notes that an electric car battery is covered by manufacturer warranty for eight years. “We’re in a good position to tackle this before we get huge onslaught of batteries that’s going to continuously grow,” Spangenberger says.

The alternatives leave much to be desired. Battery recycling centers, for example, do exist—but the varied (and still-changing) shapes and chemistries of today’s lithium-ion batteries promise to make recycling them costly and dangerous relative to conventional lead-acid car batteries. Meanwhile, burying old lithium-ion batteries in landfills is both unsustainable and environmentally devastating.

Labs around the world are investigating more efficient techniques. Among them: Pyrometallurgy, which involves melting down metals to extract valuable materials like cobalt and nickel for reuse; hydrometallurgy, which involves leaching the materials from the battery by immersing it in a solution; and directly reusing certain components of a spent battery in new ones. The catch: The current costs associated with these processes often outweighs the value of the recovered materials.

What’s more, who will bear the cost of recycling lithium-ion batteries—the automaker, the consumer, someone else? It remains unclear, at least in the U.S.

“At the end of the day, after your car is out of warranty, as far as I know, [automakers] are not responsible for the battery’s end of life,” Spangenberger says. “They are responsible for ensuring that there is place where a battery can be recycled, but at the end of 15 years, the cost would fall on whoever is going to be the last owner of the vehicle.” To say nothing of the fact that lithium is flammable and must be expensively handled like hazardous waste—unlike conventional lead-acid car batteries.

But where there is a problem, there is business potential.

“The industrialization opportunity for autonomous and battery-electrical vehicles is bigger than the telecommunications industry,” Hallmark says. “It’s a huge economic opportunity.”

Defining a dead battery

It may come as a surprise that a “spent,” “used,” or “end-of-life” automotive lithium-ion battery is far from it, retaining about 60% to 70% of its original capacity. That means the faded battery is no longer desirable for automotive use—so long, driving range—but is still coveted for other uses.

So-called “second-use” li-ion batteries, which could be used in applications such as residential and commercial electric power management, power grid stabilization, and renewable energy support, help delay the need to recycle or discard them.

The University of Warwickshire is one institution conducting research on second-use batteries. In one study partially funded by Jaguar Land Rover, researchers repurposed EV batteries from Jaguar’s I-Pace electric SUV into small energy storage systems that could power homes, farms, and businesses in developing economies.

James Marco, the lead researcher on the project, says he focused on whether a second-use system could accommodate several types of EV batteries. “Even if you think you’re buying the same chemistry, the devil is in the details,” he says. “Imagine you are making a cake. You might have the same cake, but the recipe is subtly different.” The lab is also researching safer ways to transport batteries, including cryogenically freezing them.

Several automakers are funding studies of battery recycling or second-use applications, including Ford, Volkswagen, GM, Nissan, and Honda. Meanwhile Tesla announced in its April Impact Report that it is building a battery recycling center at its Sparks, Nev. battery and vehicle assembly facility, Gigafactory 1.

Argonne National Lab, a federal research center for science and engineering in Chicago, is also studying lithium-ion battery recycling. In November, Argonne researchers published a study in Nature that found that there are already 250,000 tons of battery waste in the one-million EVs on the road today. Argonne is investigating how to make recycling EV batteries cheaper to recycle as part of a program called ReCell, launched by the Vehicle Technologies Office of the Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy division.

“We’re working on coming up with new technologies that are not typically studied by industry,” Spangenberger says. ReCell focuses on direct recycling, material recovery, and the development of battery designs that optimize for sustainability.

Despite all the effort, most industry observers see lithium-ion batteries as a stepping stone to better kinds of rechargeable batteries, such as solid state. Top automakers including Ford, Hyundai, Nissan, Toyota, and Volkswagen have invested in research in this area, with hope that the technology will be on the road by the mid 2020s, according to Navigant Research.

“Lithium-ion batteries are not the future as they are currently defined,” says Hallmark, the Bentley executive. “We do want to go electric as fast as we can. But we’ve also got to think ahead.”

There is confidence that the work to improve lithium-ion batteries will help the industry take that next step. In the meantime, the race is on to address EVs’ fast-approaching problem.

“Everyone sees that when you introduce a solution to an energy problem, the scale is huge,” says Whitacre, the Carnegie Mellon professor. All the more reason to put the pedal to the metal.

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