Boosting lithium ion battery recycling is the key to avoiding the toxic mining and landfill legacies of the past.
Editor’s note: This is the latest in our Emerging Voices series featuring work from university students on topics related to climate and capital.
The year is 2030. Globally, 350 million electric vehicles are driving our roads and EVs represent more than 60% of new vehicle sales. However, the nearly 10 million EVs sold between 2015 and 2020 are reaching the end of their useful lives. Most of the dead lithium ion (Li) batteries that powered these EVs have ended up in landfills, leaching toxic chemicals and heavy metals into the earth and aquifers, emitting noxious fumes into the air and undoing some of the environmental benefits that EVs have been hailed for. That’s not what the world envisioned for the green energy transition. But that’s what will happen if Li battery recycling doesn’t get going soon. New public and private investment in recycling is needed right now to maximize the economic, environmental and health benefits of EVs, to minimize damage of the toxic materials used in their batteries, and to power a new and greener generation of vehicles.
The current generation of batteries was not designed with recycling in mind
Global EV sales are growing exponentially, from 5% in 2020 to 14% in 2022, and an expected 18% in 2023, the International Energy Agency (IEA) reports. As in so many industries, recycling hasn’t kept up. Only about 5% of lithium-ion batteries are recycled; about 3 billion end up in landfills. Asia recycles far more than the West. And most recycled material still comes from the 5 to 10% of cell manufacturing that ends up as scrap. But recycling is becoming an important source of materials, as mining for new materials becomes more challenging and expensive. So the good news is that Li battery recycling is projected to grow substantially from a global $6.5 billion in 2022 to $35 billion in 2031 at a CAGR of 20.6%.
Source: International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT)
Buyers and government regulators are choosing EVs because they don’t emit greenhouse gasses when used, making them more environmentally friendly than their combustion engine counterparts. A 2019 study of the Nissan Leaf EV found that its lifetime emissions per kilometer were less than a third of emissions from combustion engine vehicles, even though the electricity used to power it was carbon intensive. This analysis included all emissions from producing and using a vehicle, including manufacturing, fuel cycle and tailpipe. But, to maximize the environmental benefits of EVs, it pays to consider the end of a vehicle’s life, too.
Source: International Energy Agency (IEA)
Electric vehicles are capturing the imagination now, but they’re not a new concept. In 1900, EVs accounted for 28% of vehicles sold in the U.S., outselling gasoline and steam powered cars combined. By 1935, however, internal-combustion engine vehicles took the lead, largely because they were at least 50% less expensive than their electric counterparts. The 1970 Clean Air Act, the 1973 OPEC Oil embargo and 1992 Energy Policy Act briefly renewed interest. But it wasn’t until after Tesla started gaining momentum in the mid-2010s that EVs really took off.
Source: International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT)
EV battery recycling can recover valuable materials, including lithium, cobalt, nickel, manganese, aluminum and copper. Battery manufacturers use different compounds of these materials: lithium nickel cobalt aluminum oxide (NCA), lithium nickel manganese cobalt oxide (NMC), lithium manganese oxide (LMO) and, increasingly, lithium iron phosphate (LFP) for its better safety profile. The previously mentioned are lithium-ion chemistries commonly used in EVs. Many of these are expensive to procure and toxic. Battery makers have been reducing their use of Cobalt because it’s been linked to labor abuses, lower thermal stability, fires and the mining waste it produces can cause significant damage to environmental and public health.
The multiple chemical compounds and mechanical designs rather than an industry-wide standard makes efficient recycling a challenge.
However, recycling EV batteries is difficult, expensive and even dangerous. First, it requires dismantling boxes containing electronics and hundreds – sometimes thousands – of cells which look like rolls of coins but with toxic and potentially explosive materials inside. The current generation of batteries was not designed with recycling in mind. The multiple chemical compounds and mechanical designs rather than an industry-wide standard makes efficient recycling a challenge.
Two techniques dominate: pyrometallurgy (shredding and burning the cell and then extracting the valuable metals) is used for simpler chemistries such as LFP and LMO, while hydrometallurgy (soaking disassembled battery materials in acid and then extracting the valuable metals) is used for compounds with multiple metals, such as NCM. These processes involve intensive energy, chemicals, waste and greenhouse gasses. That leaves opportunities to develop more efficient and climate-friendly technologies. Leading recyclers Redwood Materials and Li-Cycle already say they’ve developed processes that recover 95%+ of battery materials, rather than the more common 50%.
Recycled lithium can be five times more expensive than lithium from brine-mining
Battery recyclers face additional challenges. It’s costly to transport combustible materials over long distances. Yet real estate costs and regulatory hurdles can put ideal locations out of reach. And the supply chains aren’t as robust. Despite the dramatic rise in “virgin” materials prices, recycled supplies are usually more expensive. One study found recycled lithium was five times more expensive than lithium from brine-mining. And battery makers are beginning to shift to less expensive compounds, such as lithium ferro phosphate (LFP), and away from Cobalt, leaving recyclers with materials that are less valuable for resale.
Most EV batteries don’t go to recycling or landfill when they no longer meet the performance standards required for vehicles, which require at least 80% of total rated capacity and a resting self-discharge rate of no more than 5% over 24 hours. Instead, most are re-used for other applications with less stringent standards, such as batteries for homes or businesses. Those could eventually be recycled, too.
As a result of these challenges, Li battery recyclers have seen uneven growth that hasn’t kept pace with EV sales growth.
As a result of these challenges, Li battery recyclers have seen uneven growth that hasn’t kept pace with EV sales growth. And it’s been difficult to make a profit. Redwood Materials – which works with Ford, Toyota, Volkswagen, Volvo, Panasonic and Tesla – has struggled to get enough batteries to recycle, resulting in excess capacity. Nissan, Volkswagen and Renault operate their own plants but, combined, they recycle just a few thousand batteries per year.
“I like to compare it to the plastic industry — we have a lot of plastic waste, and people are not really dealing with that — and I’m just worried that this will be happening also with batteries,” Laura Lander of King’s College London told Ula Chrobak of Knowable Magazine.
This is where public and private investments and government policy can help. Recycling must become a more important source of materials as the electric vehicle industry grows exponentially, environmental and health concerns about the toxic metals grows, and mining for new materials becomes more challenging and expensive. Consumers, automakers and policymakers all have an economic interest in ensuring that the batteries used in autos, homes and industry are recycled rather than ending up in landfills. But building the battery recycling industry will require investing in new technology, efficiency and capacity. Automated disassembly and “direct recovery” without using chemicals, for example, could improve efficiency, reduce labor costs and dangers, and make our economies less dependent on other nations.
See our related story by columnist Danny Kennedy: Lithium is the new Oil
Policymakers around the world have begun to accelerate EV battery recycling. China began promoting the reuse of EV battery components in 2018. In 2022, the EU established policies to make batteries more sustainable, including requiring that all rechargeable batteries must be recycled. It increased the percentage of EV battery weight that must be recycled from 50% now to 70% from 2030; the percentage of lithium from 35% to 70%, and the percentage of cobalt, copper, nickel and lead to 90% by 2026. Companies will also need to demonstrate that their materials were sourced responsibly.
Recycling must become a more important source of materials as the electric vehicle industry grows exponentially, environmental and health concerns about the toxic metals grows, and mining for new materials becomes more challenging and expensive.
The 2022 U.S. Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) allocated $335 million to boost the recycling industry, and $15 million for studies on it. It also requires that an increasing share of battery materials be sourced domestically or from a trade ally to qualify for tax credits. This will encourage recycling since most Li battery materials don’t currently come from the U.S. or trade partners. The Senate passed the 2022 Strategic EV Management Act to boost reuse and recycling of EV batteries in federal fleets, but the House has yet to take it up.
Time to think big
These are good steps. But policymakers, automakers, investors – and the public, too – will need to take far greater action if we’re going to make the green economy transition reach its potential. The IEA predicted we’ll have more than 5.7 million tons of spent EV batteries by 2040. And recycling could reduce the need for newly mined lithium by 25%, and for cobalt and nickel by 35%, according to the Institute for Sustainable Futures. But even at its rapid growth rate, the battery recycling industry is lagging far behind the EV market, and would not be prepared to handle anywhere near that amount. Global recycling capacity would need to more than triple by 2030, according to George Hilton of IHS Markets. To achieve global sustainability and security objectives, rather than continue loading our landfills with toxic waste, policymakers, investors and the public will need to prioritize recycling of the valuable minerals inside EV batteries – and think big.
Featured photo: Redwood Materials