Large lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) are used in the hundreds in electric vehicles (EVs) today. Like our mobile phone batteries, they are bundled together to function as one.
For technology to be sustainable in the near future, it is no longer viable to discard products that can no longer serve their original purpose. EV batteries are expensive and loaded with limited raw materials like lithium and cobalt that are harmful to dispose of. These parts are also at risk of exploding when piled up in landfills under heat.
These batteries should be first repurposed to be reused for a different function such as charging stations or stationary energy storage to power factories, residential buildings, hospitals and others.
The battery’s remaining capacity is reused for a secondary application. This requires several processes to ensure it is safe to be reused. Car makers today are investing in repurposing opportunities in order to have control over the secondary use applications and to ensure they are reliable and financially viable.
Although this emerging industry of EV battery repurposing may not be as attractive as EV manufacturing and assembly or as popular as EV battery manufacturing, this is an important area to focus on as any part of the EV value chain.
The functioning modules and cells in refurbished batteries are used for application in another EV battery, where the battery can be easily recovered and has not been damaged or discharged.
Tesla and Nissan offer refurbished battery packs for warranty replacement of original battery packs in electric vehicles, according to Drive Safe & Fast Malaysia1. Tesla claims 60% of its battery components are recycled, with 10% used to build a new battery case for an EV.
Toyota has hooked up old batteries to solar panels to power convenience stores in Japan. Meanwhile, Korea’s trade ministry partnered with LG Chem to produce portable battery packs (power banks) using discarded EV batteries.
These are examples of how used LIBs can be given a second life and recycled. However, the issue still remains that the recycling rate of EV batteries today is low, with many still ending up in landfills leaching toxic chemicals that pollute our soil and rivers.
In Australia, only 2–3% of LIBs are collected and sent overseas for recycling. In the EU and US, the rates are less than 5%.2
It is time to get serious about recycling lithium-ion batteries. A projected surge in electric-vehicle sales means that researchers must think about conserving natural resources and addressing battery end-of-life issues. Industry analysts predict that by 2020, China alone will have generated some 500,000 metric tons of used Li-ion batteries and that by 2030, the worldwide number will hit 2 million metric tons per year.
Most of the batteries that do get recycled undergo a ‘smelting’ process under high-temperature melting and extraction. Despite the high costs to build and operate, these large commercial plants don’t recover all valuable battery materials. Additionally, sophisticated equipment is required to treat the emissions generated by the smelting process.
Driven by the enormous quantity of spent Li-ion batteries expected soon from aging electric vehicles and ubiquitous portable electronics, start-up companies are commercializing new battery-recycling technology. More scientists have started to study the problem – some battery, manufacturing, and recycling experts have begun forming large, multifaceted collaborations to tackle the impending problem.