Are batteries in electric cars recyclable?

By 2026, electric cars will account for a fifth of all registrations in the UK. That’s according to forecasts by Bloomberg New Energy Finance. European Union sales are expected to top half a million in 2020 alone.

Combine this with the government’s proposed ban on the sale of new petrol, diesel and hybrid cars from 2040 (possibly 2035), and it’s clear electric cars are set to become mainstream in just a few years. This is great news for local air quality and the environment.

Not so great is the potential for a huge mountain of used electric car batteries once they’ve reached the end of their serviceable life. A battery is expected to last around 10 years before it needs to be replaced.

Fortunately, electric car batteries CAN be recycled. Indeed, car companies are investing millions in the reuse and recycling of these components.

‘Battery waste mountain’

Nissan electric car batteries

A study by the University of Birmingham said that ‘recycling technologies for end-of-life lithium-ion batteries are not keeping pace with the rapid rise of electric vehicles’, with researchers warning that ‘the UK needs to act to prevent an electric vehicle battery waste mountain’.

It’s calculated that the one million electric cars sold in 2017 will create a staggering 250,000 tonnes, or half a million cubic metres, of unprocessed pack waste when they reach the end of their lives.

The consultancy Circular Energy Storage estimates that more than 1.2 million tonnes of waste lithium-ion batteries will be recycled worldwide by 2030. To this end, BASF, Fortnum and Nornickel are planning an electric car battery recycling centre in Finland.

The hope is that the plant can extend the recovery rate of materials from lithium-ion batteries from 50 percent to more than 80 percent. “By recycling valuable materials in lithium-ion batteries, we reduce the environmental impact of electric car batteries by complementing the supply of cobalt, nickel and other critical metals from primary sources,” said Tero Hollander, head of business development at Fortnum Recycling and Waste.

A second life for electric car batteries

Volkswagen mobile charging

There are many examples of electric car batteries being given a second life when they are no longer suitable for their original purpose. Second life batteries are removed from the car, unpacked, graded and repurposed.

Amazingly, the battery pack in a 2019 Volkswagen e-Golf can store as much energy as a typical household consumes in one day.

For example, 280 Nissan Leaf batteries are used to provide back-up power to the Amsterdam Arena – home of Ajax football club. It’s Europe’s largest energy storage system powered by second-life electric car batteries and used by a commercial business.

In 2017, Renault and Powervault announced a partnership to reuse electric car batteries in home energy storage units. Meanwhile, in 2019, Volkswagen announced that it intended to use the battery packs from its electric vehicles in a network of portable charging stations. Each station can charge up to four vehicles at a time.

Electric car batteries at the end of their second life

Electric car battery

In many ways, the second life is simply delaying the inevitable: at some point an electric car battery will need to be recycled. Volkswagen wants to recycle 97 percent of the raw materials in its battery packs, up from 53 percent at present.

This is important, as battery production puts a strain on the world’s natural resources. For example, cobalt is a critical material, but there are social, ethical and environmental concerns in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where much of it is mined.

In Salar de Atacama – a major centre of lithium production – 65 percent of the region’s water is consumed by mining activities, affecting the local farmers.

The challenge – not to mention the endgame – is to close the loop of electric car battery production. Rather than recycling the materials for other uses, the best scenario would be for them to be retained for a new battery. JB Straubel, Tesla CTO, said the company is “developing more processes on how to improve battery recycling to get more of the active materials back. Ultimately, what we want is a closed loop that reuses the same recycled materials.”

The American company has a battery recycling facility in Nevada where lithium, cobalt, copper and steel are recovered and reused in the production of new electric car batteries.

Under the Waste Batteries and Accumulators Regulations 2009, an electric car manufacturer is obliged to take back a battery for recycling. Contact the relevant car company for more details.

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