Separate to the potential impact of regular batteries on different aspects of society, electric vehicle batteries may have their own issues to consider.
In the guide below, we outline some of the potential problems with electric vehicle batteries.
These problems relate to how they are sourced and made, and also how they are managed as waste.
We also discuss some potential solutions to address these problems, and how electric vehicle battery waste might be managed in the future.
Summary – Problems For Electric Vehicle Batteries, & Potential Solutions
– Recycling EV batteries may not be profitable or economically feasible in some ways
– The scale/capacity of recycling, and the ability to have closed loop recycling (where most materials can be reclaimed) might be lacking
– Even re-using EV batteries isn’t a final solution
– Recycled EV batteries may have liability or quality concerns, which might impact EV manufacturers using them
– Sourcing and mining of the metal in EV batteries from other countries may have some ethical concerns
– Rare or precious metals like lithium and cobalt used in the EV batteries may have scarcity concerns
– The mining of EV battery metals, and recycling or disposing of EV batteries, may both have environmental concerns
– Consider how EV battery recycling can become more economically feasible or profitable for recyclers
– Find re-use or secondary use applications for batteries instead of just recovering materials from EV batteries
– Consider substitute metals and alternative metals for the scarce metals currently being used in EV batteries
– Find more cost effective ways to recycle battery metals and materials (through innovation, technology development, and modifying existing processes)
– Introduce certification schemes in battery supply chain (to ensure a level of eco or ethical standards)
– Find ways to make the mining, manufacture and recycling or disposal of EV batteries more eco friendly or sustainable
Potential Sustainability Problems With Electric Vehicle Batteries
1. Recycling EV batteries may not be profitable or economically feasible in some ways
The reasons for this may be that:
– The materials reclaimed from the EV batteries aren’t valuable enough compared to the cost of recycling
– The cost to reclaim lithium from EV batteries can be an extra process and extra cost, and not all recyclers will pay this cost
The value of the raw materials reclaimed from a lithium ion electric vehicle battery is only about a third of the full cost to recycle the battery … (evrater.com)
EV car battery recycling facilities can recover most metals from the battery, but they can’t directly recover the vital lithium, which ends up in a mixed byproduct …
… lithium [can be reclaimed] from the byproduct, but each extra process adds cost.
[With this being the case, EV batteries] might be taken to recycling facilities [but] the lithium itself [won’t] be recovered if [someone] doesn’t pay to do so.
2. The scale/capacity of recycling, and the ability to have closed loop recycling (where most materials can be reclaimed) might be lacking
Based on some of the above factors like cost, and also the inability to recover metals/materials like lithium easily:
– The scale/capacity of EV battery recycling might be an issue, especially as more EVs go on the road in the future
– EV battery recycling might bot be very circular or closed loop. It might need more virgin materials to keep making new batteries
3. Even re-using EV batteries isn’t a final solution
Ultimately, even if batteries are re-used after their life in an EV, they will need to be recycled at some point.
So, re-use is only temporary.
There’s also still the issue of how to manage waste from the battery and it’s materials when it reaching the end of it’s re-use lifespan if it can’t be recycled, or needs to be disposed of.
4. Recycled EV batteries may have liability or quality concerns, which might impact EV manufacturers using them
EV companies may not want to use recycled EV batteries due to these quality or liability concerns, and what they might mean in terms of risk or performance for them and their products
[This is a] similar [principle] to how tire manufacturers can be concerned with using recycled rubber (evrater.com)
5. Sourcing and mining of the metal in EV batteries from other countries may have some ethical concerns
There may be different examples of these ethical concerns, with one being child labor.
Cobalt, a key component of the lithium-ion batteries in electric cars, is linked to reports of child labour (theconversation.com)
6. Rare or precious metals like lithium and cobalt used in the EV batteries may have scarcity concerns
Lithium resources are considered to be finite, and so are cobalt resources.
Scarcity not only impacts the supply of metals and resources that can be used in the batteries to physically manufacture the batteries, but it also impacts factors such as price and affordability.
The elements used in battery production are finite and in limited supply [and] This makes it impossible to electrify all of the world’s transport with current battery technology (theconversation.com)
7. The mining of EV battery metals, and recycling or disposing of EV batteries, may both have environmental concerns
Different environmental concerns may include but aren’t limited to:
– Toxicity of extracted ores
– Pollution and contamination from mining
– Waste products from disposing and recycling EV batteries
The nickel used in EV batteries is toxic to extract from the ground.
… there are environmental concerns and land use conflicts connected with lithium mining in countries like Tibet and Bolivia.
… core ingredients [in lithium ion batteries] such as lithium and cobalt are finite and extraction can lead to water pollution and depletion among other environmental consequences (theguardian.com)
Managing, Disposing Of, & Recycling Batteries
… there is [also] still no environmentally safe way of recycling lithium-ion batteries (theconversation.com)
Lithium ion batteries carry a risk of giving off toxic gases if damaged … (theguardian.com)
Potential Solutions To Electric Vehicle Battery Sustainability Problems
1. Consider how EV battery recycling can become more economically feasible or profitable for recyclers
One way to do this might be to place some accountability on EV car or EV battery manufacturers to pay into some of the recycling/battery reclamation costs.
Other costs may be considered too.
[One option might be to get car manufacturers to pay for the extra costs associated with reclaiming lithium from the mixed byproduct left over after recycling] (theguardian.com)
2. Find re-use or secondary use applications for batteries instead of just recovering materials from EV batteries
Car batteries can still have most of their capacity left when they are no longer able to adequately power electric vehicles
Home energy storage is one potential re-use application, but there may be more than one re-use application for ‘spent’ EV batteries.
When the battery is re-used to utilize this power capacity, the battery’s lifespan is increased, and this increases the sustainability footprint of the battery.
Many EV batteries which are ‘spent’ still have up to 70% capacity left – more than enough for other uses.
After used EV batteries have been broken down, tested, and re-packaged, they can be used for things like home energy storage.
Lithium-ion car and bus batteries can collect and discharge electricity for a further seven to 10 years after being taken off the roads
In Japan, re-used batteries are being used for chilling drinks, powering car charging stations and storing energy for homes and grids in Europe
[Used EV car batteries are constantly being tested for new uses]
The market for second life EV batteries could be huge [in the future]
Read more about new potential uses at bloomberg.com
3. Consider substitute metals and alternative metals for the scarce metals currently being used in EV batteries
Some metals have substitute or alternative metals that can be used in their place, or to achieve a similar performance.
Sometimes, there’s no suitable substitute or alternative material.
Cost and performance are some of the things that have to be considered for substitutes and alternatives.
… battery technology is continuing to improve.
Lithium-titanate and lithium-iron-phosphate, for example, are gaining importance in the EV market and don’t need cobalt.
Other battery chemistries that rely on magnesium, sodium, or lithium-sulfur are also gaining traction as they have the potential to beat lithium-ion batteries on energy density and cost.
4. Find more cost effective ways to recycle battery metals and materials
This could be through innovation, technology development, and modifying existing processes
Dedicated EV battery recycling factories (with high efficiency) could be one way to do this.
New recycling processes like wet chemical processing could be other solutions (to retrieve important metals from EV batteries)
Re-designing EV batteries to make them easier to recycle may be one more way to make recycling more efficient and cost effective. Standardised batteries might be an option in re-designs.
This would also potentially help make EV batteries more sustainable by helping keep metals in circulation.
[A wet chemical process of recovering metals from batteries might be one commercially viable way in the future of recycling EV car batteries]
[It would also help recycling if all electric car batteries had to be designed and made in a way to make recycling easier and cost effective – so, design can help in recycling efforts. Think about the end result you want, and design for that]
5. Introduce certification in the battery supply chain
This might help ensure a level of eco or ethical standards, and reduce ethical conflicts
Certification schemes [like one that’s been] … proposed in Sweden … could help deliver low-impact battery value chains and avoid conflict minerals and human rights violations in the industry (abc.net.au)
6. Find ways to make the mining, manufacture and recycling or disposal of EV batteries more eco friendly or sustainable
For example, dedicated EV battery recycling factories could meet a pre-determined and transparent environmental standard, and mining operations could too.
These standards could be based on the desired sustainability outcome.