The evolving lithium battery landscape creates both contradictions and infrastructure hurdles that some argue need to be addressed sooner rather than later. Waste management is an essential part of this.
More than 6 million electric vehicle (EV) batteries will end up as scrap by 2030, and recycling and reuse industries are racing to keep up. Some researchers predict that recycling alone will be a $12 billion industry by 2025.
US President Joe Biden wants to make America a key player in the electric vehicle battery industry with a $3.1 billion spending program on auto production to move away from fossil fuels.
Much of this dream is pinned to a stretch of dusty ground in Nevada’s high desert called Thacker Pass. He serves as a pivot in Biden’s push to increase domestic lithium production and more EV batteries. That’s because Thacker Pass is the largest hard rock lithium reserve in the United States.
Currently, China dominates global electric vehicle battery production, with over 80% of all units developed there.
Still, as the Biden administration targets the top spot for EV battery production, insiders point to industry pitfalls.
Due to the potentially dangerous chemistry of lithium-ion EV units, concrete solutions are needed before an avalanche of dead batteries ends up waiting and waiting for recycling like ticking time bombs.
Those working on the sales side of the electric vehicle revolution tend to squirm or offer vague generalities when asked what will happen to all the old batteries.
The notion is quickly lumped into the very broad category of recycling or second-life applications without offering any planning details.
Second-life applications are an option for electric vehicle batteries that are no longer suitable for electric cars, but are suitable for alternative uses like energy storage.
And while this is just the beginning, the ultimate question remains: how can America effectively manage millions of completely sold out, defective, or recalled EV units?
For those who specialize in hazardous waste, handling lithium batteries is a serious subject.
“For me, the biggest challenge I see, especially with Second Life, is on the security side,” Scott Thibodeau of Veolia North America told The Epoch Times.
Thibodeau is the General Manager of Environmental Services and Solutions at Veolia North America, the second largest hazardous materials removal service in the United States.
He explained that the chemistry of lithium-ion batteries is problematic because they cannot be thrown away or recycled as easily as some other materials. This requires special adaptations within the evolving electric vehicle industry to responsibly disassemble, package and dispose of old units.
A “thermal runaway”
“Packaging and logistics are neither easy nor cheap,” Thibodeau said.
In addition, batteries present a significant fire hazard.
Nestled in the sprawling suburbs of Chicago is the town of Morris, Illinois. Around noon on June 29, 2021, the fire department received a call that a warehouse fire had broken out in a structure that many residents assumed was just an abandoned building. The call came from someone claiming to be an employee of a company that stored 200,000 pounds of batteries in the building, most of which were lithium.
Fire Chief Tracey Steffes told reporters it was the first time her department had fought a lithium fire.
Traditional fire suppression is done by using water or chemicals to cut off the supply of oxygen. However, lithium is unique in that it does not require oxygen to burn. Once ignited, it creates what Thibodeau called “thermal runaway,” which is incredibly difficult to control.
“Once the battery is in this state, stopping it is nearly impossible,” Steffes told reporters after the June 2021 fire.
Confused Morris residents were quickly evacuated from neighborhoods near the fire and spent hours in hotel rooms, watching smoke fill the sky and fearing for the safety of their homes.
At that time, US residents got to see lithium’s dark side up close and personal.
This wasn’t the first incident where lithium battery storage went catastrophic, and it likely won’t be the last.
Thibodeau says that while there is no easy way to put out a lithium battery fire, having people properly trained on how to reduce the risk of fire, combined with proper handling and storage, is a huge step in the right direction.
He also noted that 95% of the time the handling of used batteries happens “the right way.”
Recycling electric vehicle batteries poses another significant hurdle. This is due to a trifecta of complications including expense, existing capacity to handle demand, and the simple fact that these batteries are not easy to recycle.
“Currently, less than five percent of lithium batteries that reach end of life are recycled,” a spokesperson for carbon accounting group Greenly told The Epoch Times.
The Greenly representative went on to explain that while the potential for accelerated recycling exists, it is not possible with lithium-ion batteries until they reach the end of their lifespan.
“Industry has not acquired the knowledge or experience to learn how to recycle these batteries or maximize their use beforehand,” they added.
This is where second-life apps come in, which can buy a non-defective EV battery for an additional 10 years of life. It also buys growing recycling businesses time to catch up.
But some experts say demand for recycling could exceed supply capacity.
“Even in 2025, the majority of recycling comes from manufacturing waste. It will be necessary to wait until 2030 before the second-hand EVs [will] exceed manufacturing waste like the majority of recycled battery metals,” Impossible Mining co-founder and CEO Oliver Gunasekara told The Epoch Times.
Gunaseka’s company offers seabed mining as an alternative to traditional mining methods. He says lithium mining will continue until 2050, or until there are enough used batteries to harvest to propel growing industry demand.
That means new minerals to make more EV batteries while old ones eventually run out – and accumulate somewhere – until maybe 2050.
“New mining operations must increase fivefold to enable the shift from rampant fuels to clean energy. Only seabed battery metals can provide this material without the enormous ESG [environmental, social, and governance] impact,” Gunaseka said.
And Thibodeau says there are still high operating costs to consider.
This can cost up to $300 per metric ton of “black mass pulp” that enters a recycling facility. Even after removing profitable metals, there are operational overheads, safety rules, equipment, and employee salaries to manage.
Biden’s package for increased EV battery production only includes $60 million for second life applications.
Yet there is no clear spending plan for the recycling industry.
“The second biggest challenge is managing and mitigating the costs of recycling and reuse,” Thibodeau said, adding, “The industry needs take-back laws, landfill bans, and a streamlining to get it from point A to point B”.