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Electric Vehicles: Where do batteries go when they die?

Electric Vehicles batteries; As automakers invest more in electric cars, environmentalists and scientists are sounding the alarm about

By Ground report
New Update
Battle of Electric vehicle battery recycling

As automakers invest more in electric cars, environmentalists and scientists are sounding the alarm about what happens when batteries run out.

The International Energy Agency projects that there will be between 148 and 230 million battery-powered cars on the road by 2030, which would represent up to 12% of cars worldwide. Although this is a fantastic projection for the environment, not all aspects of electric cars are environmentally friendly.

Most batteries are made up of a lithium-ion chemical formula. Lithium-ion batteries (LIB) differ in their chemistry; some LIBs contain nickel and cobalt, while others use phosphate as the primary metal.

So what do all of these different formulations have in common?

  • First, the raw metals are all mined, finished and often sourced from countries with more relaxed environmental regulations.
  • Second, LIBs are toxic and can be especially dangerous when they end up in landfills.

A recent report from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that LIBs caused at least 65 fires in municipal landfills in 2020. In addition to battery toxicity, if not disposed of properly, automakers who do not take advantage of recycling opportunities miss an opportunity.

How does the circular economy reduce toxic waste?

Environmentalists and economists have been promoting the concept of the circular economy for decades, but it has only recently gained popularity over the past decade. A circular economy is a pattern of production and consumption that allows materials to be recycled, reused and repaired to extend their useful life and reduce waste and energy consumption.

Imagine that a car battery is designed with recycling in mind. The battery engineer can implement a less corrosive glue into your design to protect some of the battery materials longer, thus extending battery life.

Then, when a battery begins to show signs of wear, instead of sending the battery to a landfill, they send the battery to their in-house recycling process, where they can extract precious metals. From there, the recycled product is turned into new batteries for future electric cars, with the manufacturer less dependent on international materials.

Recycling programs are the future of electric cars

While there are many manufacturing hurdles to overcome for the electric car market to become a fully efficient circular economy, finding companies that can recycle batteries is a big step in the right direction.

There are mainly two families of battery recycling processes used separately or in combination.

The first is pyrometallurgy, which destroys the organic and plastic constituents by bringing them to high temperatures and only retains the metallic compounds (nickel, cobalt, copper, etc.) which are then separated chemically.

The second is hydrometallurgy which does not include a high-temperature stage but separates the constituents only by different baths of compositions chemically adapted to the materials that one wishes to recover.

Re-use

An electric vehicle battery pack is at the end of its useful life when its capacity is reduced by 20-30%. From this point on, each charge-discharge-charge cycle will further reduce battery capacity and the pack will no longer be adequate to power the vehicle.

Recycle

Once it is no longer feasible to reuse a used lithium-ion battery pack, the next step is to recycle it. The battery cell casing (steel, aluminium, plastic, etc.) can be easily recovered and recycled for use in other environments. Additionally, the lithium, manganese, nickel, and other elements found in battery cells can be recovered and refined for a multitude of different uses, including use in future EV batteries.

What environmental impacts?

Perhaps even more important is the issue of the environmental impacts of battery manufacturing. Even if enough materials exist, the impacts of their exploitation must be seriously considered.

Studies show that the manufacture of batteries can have high impacts in terms of human toxicity or pollution of ecosystems. Added to this is the need to monitor working conditions in some countries. In addition, the analysis of environmental impacts requires perfect knowledge of the composition and manufacturing processes of the batteries, whereas this information is difficult to obtain for obvious industrial property reasons.

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