The report, published in the 150th anniversary of the journal, Nature, was conducted in partnership with researchers from the Leicester and Newcastle universities. The team looked at the potential waste that is already causing headaches for not only the UK, but countries around the world, and found that without significant investment in recycling and re-purposing infrastructure, the so-called waste mountain of lithium-ion batteries could become a significant environmental concern.
For example, using the one million EVs sold in 2017 as a nice round figure, the researchers calculated that at the end of their useful lives they would create 250,000 metric tons of unprocessed waste. If we extrapolate those numbers for EVs sold in the UK for 2019 to date, we're looking at well over 6000 tons when those cars reach the end of their useful lives.
The report published in nature identifies several key challenges that the industry and policy makers need to get their collective heads around:
We address most of these in our recent feature on the issues around batteries and recycling them. In it, we found that within the industry there is a common knowledge that the manufacturing processes make battery dismantling and repurposing almost intentionally difficult. And the researchers found the same, with lead researcher Dr Gavin Harper, Faraday Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham stating: “The recycling challenge is not straightforward - there is enormous variety in the chemistries, shapes and designs of lithium ion batteries used in EVs. Individual cells are formed into modules, which are then assembled into battery packs.
“To recycle these efficiently, they must be disassembled and the resulting waste streams separated. As well as lithium, these batteries contain a number of other valuable metals, such as cobalt, nickel and manganese, and there is the potential to improve the processes which are currently used to recover these for reuse.”
Identifying how to harvest these precious materials for re-use in battery manufacture and also whether spent EV batteries can be used in 'second life' applications does present the UK with an opportunity. The Faraday Institution – the UK's independent battery research organisation – points to a need for up to eight gigafactories in the UK by 2040 to fulfil the demand for lithium-ion EV batteries. However, as we reported, Tesla has already picked Germany over the UK for its Gigafactory Europe. Eight such factories would require a huge quantity of materials – materials that already exist in end of life batteries.
Co-author of the report from the University of Leicester, Andrew Abbott, said: “Finding ways to recycle EV batteries will not only avoid a huge burden on landfill, it will also help us secure the supply of critical materials, such as cobalt and lithium, that surely hold the key to a sustainable automotive industry.”
Second life applications are also becoming more and more popular. Renault has a variety of projects that seek to reuse batteries from Z.E. series vehicles, such as the Black Swan electric river cruiser in Paris. The report led by Birmingham University also highlights this as a major area for growth in terms of making the UK's treatment of batteries more sustainable.
Fundamentally both the industry and policy makers need to ensure that with EVs set to continue growing in popularity, a fully resolved lifecycle approach to manufacture and disposal needs to be adopted. Paul Anderson, Co-Director of the Birmingham Centre for Strategic Elements and Critical Materials, sums it up well in saying: “Meeting these challenges will require a large amount of ambition as well as a consistent approach to policy-making. This is essential if we are to create solutions within the design process that will allow us to make a smooth and sustainable transition to electric vehicles.”