Are EV batteries recyclable? – Union of concerned scientists

As electric vehicle (EV) sales continue to surge, current owners, future buyers, policy makers and many auto industry experts are wondering how these cars and their batteries will be disposed of.

Electric vehicles are newer technology and their batteries require different end-of-life treatment than gasoline-powered vehicles. Fortunately, research and development on lithium-ion battery recycling has been ongoing for years and there is an existing and growing reuse and recycling system in North America for these components. The map below is from recent search which explores the network of companies that already recycle and reuse batteries – these include recycling companies such as redwood materials, Li Cycleand Mount items. The industry is rapidly increasing its capacity for future recycling, with facilities planned in Nevada, New York and Georgia, to name a few.

Current collection, reuse and recycling network for lithium-ion batteries in North America.
Slatery et al. (2021).

First reused and reused, then recycled

After a battery’s first life in a car and before it is recycled, it can be reused, refurbished and reused.

If the battery is not damaged during use in an electric vehicle, such as in a car accident, these batteries have additional usable capacity – approximately 80% of the original rated capacity. This means that while the battery was manufactured to store 100 kWh, it can now store up to 80 kWh. In order to utilize the remaining capacity, batteries can be broken down to recover smaller components for reuse and refurbishment, or they can be reused and used in a less demanding application, such as stationary storage.

For stationary storage, companies such as Reuse energy and B2U storage solutions reuse these batteries for use in support of renewable energy generation. They connect multiple EV batteries together, along with battery monitoring and cooling technology, to create a larger battery that’s about the size of a shipping container. The battery stores the solar electricity generated during the day and supplies electricity at times of high demand in the evening. As the grid becomes cleaner, additional storage on the grid becomes more necessary to support the variability in production from renewable sources. These used batteries are a great way to both extend the life of an already manufactured product and supporting the transition to renewable energies. After this second life, the batteries are then ready to be recycled.

What is valuable in a vehicle battery?

Lithium-ion batteries contain many valuable materials that are worth recovering and saving from landfill.

Prior to recycling, the battery is disassembled and shredded using large machinery, breaking the battery into small pieces. After the grinding is completed, the materials are sieved and separated according to their size. This divides them into three different categories: plastics, ferrous materials, and non-ferrous materials (also known as dark mass). The black mass consists of the critical materials cobalt, lithium, nickel and manganese, which can be individually recovered using a hydrometallurgical process.

Hydrometallurgical recycling begins with leaching to create a solvent that contains the critical materials. The individual materials are then recovered by solvent extraction, precipitation and purification. Hydrometallurgy is well known in the metals industry because a similar process is also used to extract materials from ore after it has been mined. Many US-based lithium-ion recycling companies use a variation of this process and report a material recovery rate of 95%98%.

Can recycled materials be used to make new batteries?

Yes! Once the materials are recovered, they can then be processed and used in the manufacture of new lithium-ion batteries. This is a preferable source to using virgin ore because it reduces the amount of mining needed to produce electric vehicles.

Recent to research showed that by 2050, recycled materials could provide 45-52% of the cobalt, 22-27% of the lithium, and 40-46% of the nickel used in the light-duty and heavy-duty vehicle fleet in the United States. Efforts across the United States to increase electric vehicle sales are underway – places like California expect to have 100% of all car sales will be electric by 2035. The ability to recycle batteries and reuse the metal they contain is therefore a crucial step in the transformation to a cleaner transport system.

Recycling is key to making electric vehicles greener

EV batteries currently account for about half of lithium-ion batteries (by mass) that are recycled, which also includes consumer electronics and waste from battery manufacturing. With 3.8 million With EVs on the road today in North America and with sales increasing year over year, the number of EVs retiring in the coming years will continue to increase as they eventually get tallied or grow old.

This increase will result in vehicle batteries comprising a much higher percentage of the recycling stream; retreats are expected to be 6 to 7 times higher in 2025 than in 2020 and 20 to 40 times higher in 2030. Companies that recycle these batteries are setting themselves up to meet this coming wave by increasing their capacity.

These recycling companies secure a stream of batteries by partnering with automakers. For example, major automakers are partnering with Redwood Materials, a Nevada-based recycling company. Redwood is not just recycling but soon will be close the hardware loop by making battery components with recycled materials.

Redwood Materials has also implemented a recycling program to learn more about the location of removed and uncollected batteries, and how to reduce the cost of transporting these batteries to the recycling facility. Transportation from their place of retirement to the recycling plant is expensive, representing approximately 50-60% recycling costs. These costs are due to the special packaging and requirements for shipping used batteries, as well as their large size and weight. However, transport costs can potentially be reduced if a more efficient collection system is developed.

The researchers modeled the potential reverse logistics networks and now Redwood Materials is completing its own research through a learning-by-doing approach. Their new Recycling program is to collect and recycle any used lithium-ion battery free of charge in California. They also work with dealers and dismantlers to collect as many batteries as possible.

California considering battery recycling requirements

As you can see there is a lot going on in the industry. And although there are currently no recycling requirements in the United States, California has passed a bill indicating that recycling can be a priority for the state.

Assembly Bill 2832 adopted in 2018 creating the California Battery Recycling Advisory Group. This group is made up of automobile and battery manufacturers, representatives of government agencies and public interest groups. They recently advised policies in the legislature that could increase EV battery recycling. These recommendations included creating a state of California requirement that batteries be recycled, holding the automaker responsible for ensuring that this happens. It is reminiscent of how mattress, paint and carpet disposal is currently regulated in California.

In addition to the California job, the federal government is also paying attention. In the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, funds have been allocated for research and development on battery recycling. This is in addition to funding the ReCell Centera laboratory created by the Department of Energy that focuses on reducing costs and increasing returns from recycling.

Battery end of life is very important to ensure batteries are disposed of safely and materials are recovered and reused in battery manufacturing. While a lot is happening to advance EV adoption and replace gas-powered cars for good, many people are simultaneously working to ensure EV batteries are repurposed, repurposed, and recycled.