As electric vehicles take off, we'll need to recycle their batteries

When Ford unveiled the F-150 Lightning last week — an all-electric version of the best- selling vehicle in the United States—it was a big moment in the short history of electric cars. The 530-horsepower6,500-pound truck’s sticker price of just under $40,000 ($32,474 with a federal tax creditdrew comparisons to Ford’s Model T, the vehicle credited with making cars accessible to the middle class. In the first 48 hours after the battery-powered behemoth debuted, Ford received close to 45,000 pre-orders for it, equivalent to nearly 20 percent of all EVs registered in the U.S. last year.

The F-150 Lightning, along with the hundreds of other EV models top automakers are rolling out in the next few years, signals that the EV revolution is finally going mainstream. But as this industry, which is key to combating climate change, matures, a new challenge is emerging: how to acquire all of the minerals needed to make EV batteries.

The lithium, nickel, cobalt, and copper inside those batteries were all, at one point, mined from the earth. Today, much of that mining is concentrated in places like Russia, Indonesia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, places where environmental oversight is often poor, labor standards often lax, and the mining industry has a history of fueling conflicts with local communities. With the number of EVs on the roads expected to rise from 10 million in 2020 to upwards of 145 million by 2030, demand for battery minerals is poised to surge. Some industry watchdogs warn that the clean transit boom could fuel a dirty mining boom.

To reduce the need for new mining, experts say we’re going to have to get a lot better at recycling EV batteries when they die. While only a small number of EV batteries have aged off the streets already, millions of tons of batteries are expected to be decommissioned over the coming decades. Those batteries could supply a significant fraction of the EV industry’s future mineral demand—but better recycling methods and government policies to support them are needed to ensure that batteries don’t wind up in landfills instead.

“The way that this has been flipped is, ‘We’re going to need to deal with these climate issues, let’s develop new mines, let’s extract this out as quickly as possible,’” says Payal Sampat, the Mining Programs director at the environmental nonprofit Earthworks. “And it is definitely the way that short-term planning works. But we have to come up with some thoughtful solutions to this problem that is a very long-term one.”

Breaking down a battery

EV batteries are complex pieces of technology, but on a basic level they’re not unlike the lithium ion battery inside your phone. Individual battery cells consist of a metal cathode (made of lithium along with a mix of other elements that can include cobalt, nickel, manganese, and iron), a graphite anode, a separator, and a liquid electrolyte typically composed of a lithium salt. As charged lithium ions flow from the anode to the cathode, an electrical current is generated.

A single one of these batteries is enough to power a phone. To run a car, thousands of cells must be bundled together—typically in a series of modules that are wired together into battery packs and housed in a protective metal casing. Altogether, these giant electrochemical sandwiches can weigh upwards of a thousand pounds each (the F150-Lightning battery reportedly weighs closer to 2,000 pounds).

Most of the valuable materials that recyclers want to extract are found in individual battery cells. But EV batteries are designed to hold up for many years and thousands of miles of use, not to be deconstructed to their components. “For all sorts of very good reasons you can think of, you don’t want them to come apart at the drop of a hat,” says Paul Andersen, the principle investigator for for the Faraday Institution’s Reuse and Recycling of Lithium Ion Batteries (ReLib) project at the University of Birmingham in the U.K.

Partly due to the cost and complexity of EV battery disassembly, today’s recycling methods are fairly crude. After the battery is discharged and the tough outer casing is removed, modules are often shredded and thrown in a furnace. Lighter materials like lithium and manganese burn, leaving behind an alloy slurry that contains higher-value metals like copper, nickel, and cobalt. Individual metals can then be purified out of that alloy using strong acids. These processes, known as pyro- and hydrometallurgical recovery, require large amounts of energy and produce toxic gases and waste products that need to be re-captured.

While cobalt and nickel are often recovered at high rates, in most cases, lithium isn’t valuable enough for recyclers to try and recycle it. If lithium is recovered, it’s often not at a quality suitable for making new batteries.

In the future there might be a cleaner and more efficient option: direct recycling, or separating out the cathode material from individual battery cells and rehabilitating the mixtures of chemicals inside it, including by adding back lithium that has been depleted from use, instead of extracting individual metals from the mix. While direct recycling methods are still in an early stage of development, this approach could one day allow recyclers to recover more of the materials inside batteries and obtain a higher-value end product, says Gavin Harper, a research fellow at the Faraday Institution.

“You’ve got value in the raw materials, but there’s so much more value in the way those materials are combined,” Harper says. “That would be the sort of Holy Grail of recycling —to try and retain the value that’s in the structure, not just in the materials.”

Scaling up an industry

The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that the world currently has enough capacity to recycle 180,000 metric tons of dead EV batteries a year. For comparison, all of the EVs put on the road in 2019 will eventually generate 500,000 metric tons of battery waste.

And that’s just one year. By 2040, the IEA estimates there could be 1,300 gigawatt hours’ worth of spent batteries in need of recycling. To put that in terms of mass, Harper notes that an 80 kilowatt hour battery pack from a Tesla Model 3 weighs just over a thousand pounds. If all of those dead batteries came from Tesla Model 3s, this amount of spent battery storage capacity translates to nearly 8 million metric tons of battery waste—which, Harper notes, is 1.3 times the mass of the Great Pyramid of Giza.

If recycling can be scaled up, that waste could be a significant source of minerals. In a sustainable development scenario where the EV market grows at a pace consistent with limiting global warming to less than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius), the IEA estimates that recycling could meet up to 12 percent of the EV industry’s minerals demand by 2040. But if the same climate scenario is paired with  a more optimistic set of recycling assumptions, recycling could play a much bigger role.

A recent report commissioned by Earthworks found that if we assume 100 percent of dead EV batteries are collected for recycling and mineral recovery rates, particularly for lithium, recycling could meet as much as 25 percent of the EV industry’s lithium demand and 35 percent of its cobalt and nickel needs by 2040.

These estimates are “not intended as an attempt to predict the future,” report co-author Nick Florin, a research director at the University of Technology Sydney, wrote in an email. “We present a possible future to explore how important recycling could be as a key strategy to offset a demand for new mining.”

In order to unlock that potential, Florin and his co-authors emphasize the need for robust government policies to support EV battery recycling. These could include standards around battery design that would allow recyclers to take them apart more easily, battery take-back programs, laws that ban landfilling, and regulations that make it easier to transport hazardous battery waste across jurisdictions for recycling.

The European Union already regulates EV battery disposal under an “extended producer responsibility” scheme and is currently updating its regulations to set specific targets for minerals recovery. But only three U.S. states have extended producer responsibility requirements that compel lithium-ion battery makers to deal with their waste.

“Placing the onus of ensuring that batteries are collected at end of life on the operator who places [them] on the market is a very clear policy solution,” says Benjamin Hitchcock Auciello,coordinator of Earthworks’ Making Clean Energy Clean, Just and Equitable program.

Recycling won’t be enough to meet all, or even most, of our battery metals demand as the industry enters a phase of rapid growth. Thea Riofrancos, a political scientist at Providence College in Rhode Island who studies resource extraction and green technology, sees recycling as “one strategy of a host of strategies” to reduce demand for new mining. Other approaches could include developing new batteries that use less minerals  and improving  public transit and building walkable, bikeable cities to reduce overall demand for private vehicles.

Still, even if recycling only meets a quarter to a third of our battery mineral demand over the coming decades, Riofrancos says it’s an important area to focus on because it helps us “rethink our relationship with technology.”

“Recycling makes us think there are biophysical limits,” Riofrancos says. “These are non-renewable resources, ultimately. Let’s treat these as things we want to get as much use out of as possible rather than something we tear from the earth and then throw away.”

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