Manufacturers are more concerned about outdated EV batteries

6th January 2023
Kiera Sowery

Electric mobility is undoubtedly acquiring momentum with each passing year. Widely hailed for their potential to reduce global carbon footprints, manufacturers are devising new technologies which will further boost sales.

Statistic show that sales expand by over 60% in the first half of 2022, with more than four million units sold. Consequently, the market for EV accessories, including batteries, is likely to expand in proportion.

According to a report published by Future Market Insights, sales of electric vehicle batteries were valued at $ 8.68 billion in 2022, and are slated to expand at an 8.5% CAGR until 2032, reaching US$ 18.09 Billion. Among all battery types, usage of lithium-ion electric batteries is the most extensive, attributed to their high energy density and high energy per mass. Moreover, modern lithium ion batteries impart greater fire resistance, charge rapidly, and have a longer lifespan.

However, questions arise about the life of electric car batteries, and whether they will end up on landfills, negating electric vehicles’ green credentials. In spite of greater acceptance of EVs, countries are not yet fully equipped to address the problem of used lithium-ion battery disposal. As countries set ambitious carbon footprint reduction targets, they need to establish infrastructure frameworks equipped to handle the problem of EV battery disposal.

In this article, we attempt to trace how EV battery disposal impacts the environment, along with approaches and strategies nations may implement to ensure safe disposal, as well as the importance of recycling said batteries to ensure further longevity.

Batteries and EV emissions - how Credible are the findings?

Conventional fossil fuel powered vehicles do indeed comprise the majority of all global carbon emissions. Approximately 90% of these occur at the tailpipe. In contrast, emissions associated with battery electric vehicles (BEVs) occur upstream, that is, from the manufacturing process to generating electricity and power to factories. For BEVs, battery and vehicle manufacturing can contribute 14-24% of lifecycle global warming emissions. This of course depends on the manufacturing process and nature of raw materials used.

It is projected that manufacturing a BEV contributes around 70g of CO2 equivalent emissions per mile, compared to 40g associated with gasoline vehicles. Across the US, global warming emissions for BEVs on the average grid is less than half, about 200g of CO2 equivalent per mile, versus 400g.

This is attributed to low operating-related emissions, such as charging of EVs. Indeed, this appears to be an overt suggestion to widen outreach of EVs as far possible.

At the same time, a viral social media post made in 2021 claimed that manufacturing a battery for one electric car yields the same amount of carbon dioxide, as much as a petrol car which is driven for eight years. The battery of the electric car has often been targeted to claim its inefficiency compared to petrol or diesel driven cars.

It has been claimed that the manufacturing of the electric battery leads to such a huge amount of CO2 emissions that the overall purpose of the electric car to reduce dependence on or phase out fossil fuel-driven cars is not served well. However, the veracity of this claim is highly contested.

Because they require a mix of metals that need to be extracted and refined, lithium-ion batteries take more energy to produce than the common lead-acid batteries used in gasoline cars to help start the engine. Furthermore, the quantity of carbon emissions generated by lithium-ion battery manufacturing is also dependent on the location of the manufacturing process.

So producing a 75 kilowatt-hour battery for a Tesla Model 3 would result in 4,500kg of CO2 emissions if it was made at Tesla's battery factory in Nevada. That’s the emissions equivalent to driving a gas-powered sedan for 1.4 years, at a yearly average distance of 12,000 miles. Ifthe battery were made in Asia, manufacturing it would produce 7,500kg of carbon dioxide, or the equivalent of driving a gasoline-powered sedan for 2.4 years.

Recycling: an answer to EV battery disposal woes?

As highlighted above, the environmental impacts associated with EV battery production and manufacturing are significantly lesser compared to their conventional counterparts. However, it still raises concerns among stakeholders who are seeking out ways to mitigate even the minutest of negative impacts. An effective way to ensure this is recycling or reusing obsolete or degenerated EV batteries. When an EV battery pack reaches the end of its useful life in a vehicle, it is still likely to retain more than two-thirds of its initial energy storage capacity.

Hence, this makes them suitable for use in another vehicle, albeit post-refurbishment. Alternatively, these batteries may be used for low power or stationary applications, such as for low-cost energy storage for electricity and utilities consumers.

As usage of BEVs continues to rise, its economic potential for reuse may further help reduce overall EV costs and increase valued of used vehicles. Across the globe, less than 12 facilities recycle EV batteries, with a combined material processing capacities of less than 100,000 metric tons per year.

The approach, therefore, is to strengthen recycling capability of major EV battery manufacturers. One such approach is to utilise less heat and chemicals. The Idaho National Library has made headway in this regard, discovering a new electromechanical process which utilises energy from electricity instead of heat. The energy powers the reactions that leach the cobalt, lithium, manganese and other materials out of the batteries.

The end results showed 96% efficiency in terms of extracted cobalt, lithium, manganese and nickel, and an 80% reduction in energy and chemical costs.

Likewise, the EU Battery Directive is encouraging efforts aimed at minimizing the negative impact of batteries and accumulators of waste batteries on the environment. As per this directive, at least 50% of all lithium-ion battery weight must be recycled once its life ends. Capitalizing on this opportunity, manufacturers such as Nissan and Volkswagen are already investing in end-of-life battery reuse and recycling.

The former partnered with Sumitomo Corp. to set up the 4R Energy Corp., with the objective of refabricating, recycling, resell and reuse batteries in Nissan EVs in 2021. In Volkswagen’s case, the company proposed investing €500 million ($ 620 million) in developing sustainable batteries with Northvolt AB. Production of these cells is due to start in 2023 and the annual capacity intended for Volkswagen is to be built up step-by-step to as much as 40 GWh.

Developing public policy frameworks for responsible battery management

Public policy will play an important role in enabling the wide-spread reuse of EV batteries and promoting the recycling of their constituent materials. Currently, national and regional policies for waste management and recycling do not consider the impact of large flows of EV batteries primarily because the BEV market did not exist when such policies went into place.

Lessons learned from recycling policies targeting consumer electronics and other automotive components can inform material handling and recycling policies for EV batteries. In addition, the US can draw on the experience of other countries with major BEV markets, some of which are beginning to consider policies to address these issues.

For example, China recently enacted extensive policy and guidelines for recycling EV batteries and promoting second-life use. The policy directs manufacturers to design batteries that enable easier recycling and to provide technical information on proper storage and management. China also places responsibility for recycling on the vehicle manufacturer, a mechanism known as Extended Producer Responsibility. The European Commission recently proposed extensive measures that would require collection of used batteries and set standards for recycled content in new batteries.

Likewise, the World Economic Forum has organized corporations, governments, and public interest groups around the world with the aim of solving key data transparency challenges related to EV batteries. This consortium is developing standards for labelling batteries and sharing data, with the goal of providing access to critical information about battery chemistry and condition. Such information, mostly unavailable today, is critical for second-life and recycling applications and would enable the tracing of batteries’ proper-ties through the chain of ownership.

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