Sustainability Blog

Battery Recycling Poses a Sustainability Challenge

By Gabriela Wheeler - Apr 20, 2022

The world is charging down the road to vehicle electrification, but recycling electric vehicle batteries is one of the biggest headaches and sustainability challenges in the zero-emissions future. 

EV batteries have a surprisingly short life span of anywhere between one and five years. They are also fairly heavy and contain a number of precious minerals such as lithium, cobalt, nickel, graphite and manganese. These minerals are in relatively short supply in the world and where they do occur can be riven by conflict

According to data from the International Energy Agency, an electric car requires six times the amount of minerals that a conventional gasoline-powered car needs. To cap that, if thrown away into a landfill, lithium-ion batteries can contaminate water and soil, making battery recycling poses an environmental challenge, too.

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The Global Battery Alliance, a public-private collaboration of organizations within the World Economic Forum, argues that a circular battery value chain is a key way of realizing the Paris Agreement’s 1.5 degree Celsius climate goal in the transport and power sectors. That is why the role of businesses that have developed technologies to recycle batteries is growing in importance.

“There is a great need for innovation to mitigate the environmental cost – energy use, mineral extraction and chemical waste – of battery production, which will be increasing at a pace with the demand for EVs. The sustainability of electric transport therefore depends in part on the ability to reuse and recycle batteries and the compounds they contain,” Nora Rosenberg Grobæk writes in an article for the Norwegian newsletter The Explorer.

The role of circular battery production, therefore, is likely to expand alongside the development of EV technology. Recycling allows for the battery’s components and minerals to be used and reused, reducing waste and imbuing each component with additional, long-term value.

One of the countries that is a leader in terms of sustainable batteries is Norway, thanks to the fact that their transport sector is one of the most electrified in the world. According to the Norwegian Road Traffic Information Council, of 7,957 new passenger cars sold in January 2022, 6,659 were electric cars, representing a share of 83.7% of all new registered vehicles. It is not surprising to discover, therefore, that there is an increasing number of Norwegian companies whose aim is to develop and improve the technology that allows batteries to be reused and/or recycled.

Oslo-based company Eco-Stor, for example, has developed solutions for repurposing EV batteries to provide energy storage for different kinds of buildings. On its website, Eco-Stor explains that when an EV battery drops below 70 percent, the driving distance diminishes significantly and the battery must be replaced. Eco-Stor has developed technology so that batteries can be repurposed into clean, modular energy storage systems that can be used in commercial as well as residential buildings.

The United States is way behind Norway in terms of vehicle electrification, but that does not mean that the business of recycling batteries is taken less seriously. New plug-in EV sales in the U.S. nearly doubled from 2020 to 2021 and the trend will only continue, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, requiring an enormous increase in battery production. But this also means a lot of batteries will have to be disposed of at the end of their usable life cycle, which for the earliest EV batteries is right about now.

The U.S. Department of Energy, in collaboration with academia, industry and national laboratories has created ReCell Center, an entity that focuses on research to improve lithium-ion recycling techniques. It aims to make battery recycling profitable through recovery of high-value materials and designing processes to optimize yield, productivity and cost. The organization hopes to use science-based strategies to develop and promote economical lithium-battery recycling to reduce waste, create jobs and scale down the country’s reliance on raw material imports.

The processes to recycle batteries may vary, but the end goal remains the same – the need to contribute to a circular supply chain by recycling the batteries’ raw materials. 

Battery Recyclers of America operates in all 50 states and has recycled over 46 million pounds of batteries, according to the company’s website. “Each battery chemistry is recycled differently. As a general rule, the outer casing of the battery is first broken apart or disassembled. Next, the internal components are either melted, crushed, or broken apart. The various components are sorted by type, cleaned and processed, and then returned into the new product materials stream.”

Nevada-based Redwood Materials (the startup founded by former Tesla CTO J.B. Straubel) uses a combination of pyrometallurgy, or burning the batteries to remove unwanted organic materials and plastics, and hydrometallurgy, which uses leaching to soak lithium-ion cells in acids to dissolve the metals into a solution, according to an article by the World Economic Forum. In order to promote the recycling of batteries, Redwood has partnered with auto makers Ford and Volvo and will offer free programs to collect batteries from end-users.

American Battery Technology Company is an American-owned enterprise which extracts high grade metals like lithium, cobalt, nickel, copper, etc. by first disassembling the batteries and removing the contents in a three-hour process which minimizes the chances of pollution. The metals are then removed with chemicals that are kept in a “closed system.” These chemicals are cleaned, filtered and reused; any water discharge is treated “to a cleaner than potable standard,” the company explains on its website. There is also regeneration of sodium hydroxide and sulfuric acid. The individual metals are separated and purified into battery-grade components that will eventually be shipped to OEMs and manufacturers. ABTC is also investigating multiple emerging lithium extraction techniques, such as solvent, membrane, and electrolytic technologies to ensure that it can produce high quality battery-grade lithium at a low cost.

Regardless of the location, technology or economics involved in these operations, given the U.S. government’s goal of having fifty percent of new vehicles sold in the country to be electric by the year 2030, the future seems bright for battery recycling operations. They have already become a key component in the EV car supply chain and will likely continue to grow to meet the challenges presented by the need to support a circular economy and meet burgeoning demand.

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