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Faced with high energy costs, environmental concerns by consumers and government regulatory measures, the world’s leading automakers are embracing new technological advancements to make today’s vehicles more fuel efficient and environmentally friendly than ever before.

One alternative vehicle technology, electric vehicles (EVs), is making inroads in the minds of consumers who are eager to “go green” in their vehicle choice and leave a smaller carbon footprint. As the electric vehicles industry continues to grow, the reality of the recyclability of the unique batteries of these vehicles is top of mind for many within the recycling and automotive industries.

Recycling of electric vehicle batteries is not a standardized process as of now. This is because the current batteries used in electric vehicles are not standardized.

As Vinayak Yannam, manager of business research and advisory at Aranca explained, the variations in batteries comes in the form of different number of cells – some are lithium ion based, while some are nickel metal hydride batteries.

“Basically manufacturers are using their own formulations,” said Yannam, who actively tracks developments in the manufacturing and automotive sector across the U.S., UK, Germany, Japan and China. “There are only a handful of specialist recyclers currently operating in the market. Further, owing to the small base of electric vehicle batteries that need recycling, it is currently not economically viable for recyclers. As a result, the current lot of used electric vehicle batteries is being stored away until it becomes economically viable to recycle them.”

At present, car manufacturers such as Honda, Tesla, GM and Nissan have created capabilities to recycle batteries for their respective electric vehicles.

“In the long term, these automakers would have to collaborate to develop standardized batteries, which would make recycling of these batteries standardized as well,” Yannam said. “This would create opportunities for recyclers to collaborate with automakers to take on recycling responsibilities.”

According to Rajit Gadh, PhD, professor at UCLA’s Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, the first generation of batteries for electric vehicles (EVs) were designed with energy density, power density, weight, performance, number of cycles, reliability and safety in mind.

“However, not enough thought was given to their reuse, recycling, demolishing or disassembly,” Gadh said. “Future generations of batteries are expected to have these features as more and more EVs come into the market and batteries from old EVs are discarded. A key issue is cost since these batteries need to be redesigned for the reuse, recycling, disassembly and demolishing need.”

Key Issues

Today EV batteries are not adequately designed for recycling. Because of this, the waste and the technology industries have moved aggressively and several startups around the world are looking at reusing the batteries from EVs for non-EV applications such as home energy storage, commercial backup power, adding storage to solar panels or for grid energy storage.

“Often times upwards of half the battery life is still remaining for applications where the technical needs are not that stringent – as they are for an automobile,” Gadh said. “These startups are looking at creative business models for these opportunities. Beyond this, other startups are looking at separating out metals from the batteries for reuse. However, separating out materials after the battery has lived its ‘EV life’ is perhaps not the best use of the resource since these batteries still have a lot of juice left in them for a ‘second life.”

Indeed, as Yannam explained, it is estimated the present generation of electric vehicle batteries have a shelf life of 8 to 10 years. Further, the present generation of electric car batteries may still have 60 to 70 percent of usable energy left, which provides an opportunity to re-use them.

“A market for ‘second-life battery packs’ is also forecasted to emerge around the year 2030,” Yannam said. “However, there are several challenges that need to be addressed, including limited life cycles of current batteries, undefined safety standards, difference of wear and tear across each cell within a battery, among others.”

Another key recycling issue facing the EV market as older EVs enter the recycling and disassembling stage is the need for recycling facilities.

As Gadh explained, plants need to be built for recycling the batteries – whether they are for a secondary market or whether their materials are recycled.  

“Today the number of EVs in the market is small but as the number increases, there will be business opportunities to create large factories,” Gadh said. “This would be very much along the lines of Tesla’s Gigafactory that was created by Tesla founder, Elon Musk, when he realized the electric vehicle market is going to grow rapidly and substantially and he would need batteries for his cars.  It does require a visionary to see this new opportunity.”

Given that an EV does not have an engine, carburetor, oil sump, a variety of pumps, motors, pistons, etc., the number of components that are problematic from a recycling, reuse, and environmental standpoint as compared to an internal combustion engine (ICE) are far less.  

Therefore, comparing an ICE car to an EV, excluding the battery of the EV, the ICE car recycle, reuse, and disassembly is far more complex and
expensive.  

“The main issue is the battery itself and innovative ideas around the world are aggressively trying to solve this issue,” Gadh said. “Separate from the battery, given that the EV has far less vibration, noise, etc., than an ICE, its overall body and structure should last longer than an ICE vehicle body – making it better for the environment in this respect.”

Pablo Solomon, designer, futurist and former science consultant to the U.S. Department of Education said one of the biggest issues facing the recycling of EV batteries includes the inherent chemicals involved. “Some of the chemicals in these advanced batteries have a toxicity that makes lead and sulfuric acid battery chemicals look like distilled water,” Solomon says. “Things like cobalt and lithium have a whole set of chemical properties that are tougher with which to deal.”

In addition, some of the processes are expensive and complicated.

“And as we are still in the development stage with new electrolytic compounds being developed at a rapid rate, it may just be too difficult to tool up,” Solomon says.

Another challenge of the powerful batteries needed to run electric cars is that they can zap first responders and/or people trying to repair or salvage parts. While these are not necessarily deadly zaps, they can definitely stun and even cause burns.

“First responders are in the process of being trained on how to avoid being zapped by electric cans and salvage people will also need to be trained,” Solomon said.

Down the Road

Given that the automotive industry is in such early stages of R&D in this EV industry, industry experts believe we have a long way to go in this industry in terms of the evolution of products and the recyclability of components.

“Perhaps a greater challenge is that improvement of batteries is progressing very quickly,” Solomon says. “The batteries now being manufactured by Tesla at their billion dollar plant will be outdated before they hit full production of their cars. As the efficiency of new batteries improves and the cost of manufacturing goes down, present batteries will be worthless except to car collectors.”

Like any emerging technology, electric cars are at an early stage. And at this stage they are expensive and primitive compared to what they will be in just a few years.

“Within 10 years, putting money into a used Tesla will be like putting money into a model T in 2017,” Solomon said. “While it might be a fun hobby, any practical use will be gone.”

That said, as excitement continues to build as new products enter the market, a host of ancillary and services industries will arise – much like the entire supply chain arose around Detroit’s automotive industry.

“The difference now is that California seems to be a contender for leadership in the EV space alongside Detroit with Tesla in northern California and companies such as Faraday Future and Pro Terra in Southern California,” Gadh said. “The resulting technology suppliers and supply chain will have the opportunity to grow very rapidly in California – which undoubtedly would include battery recyclers and reusers.”

Given that California is among the leading environmentally friendly states in the world, there are companies that provide services such as battery reuse, battery refurbishing for EVs, which involves a tuning operation of a battery, and using batteries as backup, etc.  

“Taking this a step further by recycling the metals within EV batteries such as nickel or lithium would be the next step in making the automobile transportation sector even cleaner,” Gadh said. “There are already tech startups looking into this opportunity, so I believe that the future of recycling of electric vehicle batteries and electric vehicles overall is very exciting.”

Published in the October 2017 Edition of American Recycler News