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According to the International Energy Agency, demand for electric vehicles is skyrocketing. Sales in 2023 are expected to jump 35 percent after record-breaking sales in 2022. As more and more EVs enter the automotive stream, the focus of automotive recyclers turns to the end-of-life recycling challenges these high-tech vehicles bring to the industry.
“The parts of traditional combustion engine vehicles have been recycled for years. Similarly, the metal body, tires, plastic, and other parts of electric cars can all be recycled just as easily,” said David Lewis, chief executive officer and co-founder of MoveEV. “The biggest issue will be battery recycling. Since EV batteries are larger, the recycling process is complex, and there is currently limited infrastructure for battery recycling in the U.S.”
As Lewis explained, some of the most prominent challenges include:
The recycling process of EV batteries is currently more expensive than the production of new batteries due to the complexity of the process and the limited scale of operations. This makes it difficult for battery recycling to be cost-competitive with battery production, particularly in the absence of government subsidies or regulatory incentives.
The volume of end-of-life EV batteries is expected to grow rapidly in the coming years, and the recycling industry must rapidly expand its capacity to meet this demand. The scaling of the recycling infrastructure can be challenging due to the need for specialized equipment, skilled labor, and financing.
Material complexity
EV batteries contain a mix of metals and chemicals, which can make the recycling process more challenging. Different battery chemistries have varying recycling requirements. The battery recycling industry must develop and adapt recycling methods that are suitable for each battery chemistry.
Supply chain management
The battery recycling industry must ensure a secure and transparent supply chain for end-of-life batteries to avoid the potential for illegal or unethical recycling practices. The supply chain should provide traceability of the materials from the point of collection to the final processing stages.
“Overcoming these challenges will require a coordinated effort among governments, the private sector, and academia to develop new technologies, infrastructure, and policies to support the growth of the battery recycling industry,” Lewis said. “This will help create a more sustainable and circular economy for electric vehicles, reducing their environmental impact while promoting the development of a more sustainable energy system.”
Liz Najman is a climate scientist and communications and research manager of Recurrent – a leading EV research and analytics company. Recurrent analyzes data from over 10,000,000 used EVs and compiles free comprehensive reports about EV battery health for EV owners, buyers and sellers.
Najman said one of today’s challenges in lithium-ion battery recycling is how long those batteries are holding up.
“In a study of 15,000 vehicles that are part of the Recurrent community, only 1.5 percent have had their batteries replaced,” Najman said. “Although that number will increase as vehicles age and the need for recycling will rise. Interestingly, the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 may accelerate the battery recycling industry, since any materials recouped from U.S. recycling facilities will be eligible for future tax credits.”
Industry Growth Potential
Overall, industry experts agreed that the EV battery recycling industry has a very high growth potential, both economically and technologically, and has the added benefit of improving national security and promoting ethical sourcing of rare materials.
“The growth potential of EV battery recycling is significant,” Lewis said. “As an industry, electric vehicle manufacturing at scale is still relatively new.
“Government money is readily available to consumers and manufacturers of EVs – not only of the cars themselves, but the infrastructure needed to support them. The technology needed to optimize battery recycling is still emerging and evolving,” Lewis said.
The materials used in EV batteries also are highly reusable, and can even be repurposed for energy storage after being unable to power vehicles. As Lewis explained, this has led to a strong and rapidly growing battery recycling industry, with dozens of startups in North America and Europe. For example, B2U takes used batteries and repurposes them to store solar energy at their solar plant.
“In addition to the economic benefits of recycling, boosting domestic supplies of rare battery materials can also enhance national security,” Lewis said. “Currently, the supply of many of these materials is controlled by one or a few nations, some of
which have poor human rights records. Governments can generate a consistent, domestic, and ethical supply of these highly in-demand materials by supporting the growth of the recycling industry in their countries.”
Steve Christensen, executive director of the Responsible Battery Coalition, added that the proper management of the EV’s battery is the most significant issue facing lithium-ion battery recycling. The infrastructure for the handling, assessment, repair, potential second use and recycling of the battery is in a very early stage and operates only regionally.
“Our members, which includes OEMs and recyclers, are working to improve this,” Christensen said. “Information about the battery throughout its life appears to facilitate managing its end of life or second life. We are seeing this in the work of our partners at the Global Battery Alliance as the Battery Passport continues to be developed. The passport will provide the information needed for proper recycling and material recovery of the battery.”
Christensen added that the recovery and reuse of the battery’s materials in a true circular economy remains a challenge. As he explained, the technology exists to recover most of the metals in an EV battery. However, given the costs to recover and refine the metals, it is still cheaper to manufacture a battery from newly mined materials.
“This is where there might be a role for government policies that incentivize the use of recycled materials in new batteries in a way that relieves the additional costs associated with using recycled metals,” Christensen said.
In the Know
With an ever-changing industry, it is vital for automotive recyclers to stay abreast of the ongoing changes within the EV recycling industry.
First, Lewis said recyclers must stay informed regarding the latest developments in EV technology and battery materials. This can be done by attending industry events, reading trade publications, and staying in touch with automakers and other industry stakeholders.
“Also, auto recyclers should invest in the necessary tools and equipment to safely and efficiently handle EV batteries. This may include specialized training for staff, new dismantling equipment, and storage facilities designed for EV batteries,” Lewis said.
Auto recyclers should also consider partnering with automakers and other industry players to develop more sustainable and efficient recycling processes. This could involve collaborating on the design of EV batteries to make them easier to dismantle and recycle, as well as sharing best practices and knowledge.
“Finally, auto recyclers need to be adaptable and open to new technologies and approaches,” Lewis said. “The EV recycling industry is still evolving, and new innovations are likely to emerge in the years ahead. Auto recyclers that are flexible and willing to embrace change are more likely to thrive in this dynamic environment.”
Christensen pointed to the safe handling of the vehicle and its battery as well as where the battery must go next as two areas that automotive recyclers should monitor. Anecdotally, Christensen regularly hears stories of auto recyclers that refuse an EV due to fire safety concerns; they don’t have the ability/training to remove an EV battery; their insurance will not allow them to handle EVs; or they don’t know where to send the battery or the vehicle after they recover it.
“There are several non-profit and academic organizations that offer training for first responders and auto recyclers in handling EVs and EV batteries,” Christensen said. “One of the premiere training programs is the National Alternative Fuels Training Consortium at the University of West Virginia.”
Upcoming Advancements
One thing is for sure in the auto recycling industry: Recyclers are facing an uncertain but exciting future, with many opportunities for building a new and booming industry of recycled battery materials.
“One of the challenges they may face is a shortage of unusable batteries, seeing that automakers have only recently begun to widely manufacture EVs. Finding, collecting and dismantling batteries, which are often mislabeled, is another challenge,” Lewis said. “However, there are simultaneously many opportunities for new partnerships with automakers, encouraging them to design batteries with recycling in mind, and there are many other sources of recyclable material, such as defective or excess battery material from a large number of new battery plants. The other challenge that recyclers may face is whether the materials in old batteries will still have value for future batteries, as battery technology is changing rapidly to incorporate new materials.”
As EVs become the car of the future for both humans and the planet, Lewis advised that the industries surrounding it – recycling, battery manufacturing, charging, etc. – will boom as well.
“As more and more resources are poured into research and policy surrounding electrification, we believe that recycling EVs will only get easier, more efficient, and more economical with time,” Lewis said.
Christensen agreed that the automotive recycling industry will continue to see exponential growth and innovation.
“I am constantly amazed by the creativity and ingenuity of the automobile industry,” Christensen said. “We are witnessing landmark research on battery chemistries and automotive technologies at a pace that has not been seen in a generation. It is a truly remarkable time for the industry.”
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