Predictably, we’re now beginning to see a higher volume of hybrid and fully electric vehicles come through our gates at Ace Breakers. Recycling the body shells and other standard parts is nothing new to us but we’ve had to relearn the way we handle their rechargeable batteries i.e. the large lithium-ion battery packs that power them.

There’s no argument that electric vehicles (EVs) and their batteries are a hot topic of conversation right now. Despite being at the cutting edge of innovation, questions still linger about the longer-term impact on sustainability and the environmental footprint of these new types of batteries, mainly around the mining of the raw materials and the cost of the energy needed to manufacture and/or recycle them.

Despite this, the plan is still to phase out petrol and diesels to meet the government’s ambitious 2030 plan to halt the sale of cars with fossil fuel-burning engines. Although the lithium-ion battery was invented way back in 1976, it’s only recently that they’ve been mass-produced to power vehicles as well. This raises the question of what to do with them when they reach the end of their natural life due to their size, weight and, more importantly, being potentially dangerous if not handled properly.

Varta lithium-ion battery, Museum Autovision, Altlussheim, Germany

A very old Varta lithium-ion battery on display at Museum Autovision, Altlussheim, Germany – Image courtesy of Claus Ableiter, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Resale

When an EV battery’s performance dips below the threshold for powering a vehicle efficiently (which is typically around 70-80% of its original capacity), it is often described as “end of life” – although this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the end of its useful life. Instead, it marks the beginning of a new journey through recycling or “repurposing”. Above this threshold, and assuming the battery isn’t damaged, this valuable spare part can simply be resold.

Repurposing

If it’s below the percentage/capacity threshold, an EV battery can still find a second lease of life. The UK is now seeing as raft of new companies that are leading the way in giving these batteries new tasks to perform such as energy storage for homes, businesses and other buildings. This approach not only extends the battery’s lifespan but also alleviates the pressure on recycling facilities and reduces waste.

Recycling

Although the recycling of EV batteries is a fairly complex process, it’s becoming far more common as more and more batteries reach the end of their useful life. Once the battery is removed from the car or van, it’s transported to a specialised recycling facility where it undergoes an initial assessment. This is to confirm that it can no longer be repurposed.

If recycling is the only viable option, the next step is to discharge any remaining power from it and then carefully dismantle it. Dismantling is a highly precise process that involves separating the valuable materials in the battery such as lithium, cobalt and nickel from the less valuable ones such as stainless steel, aluminium and plastic.

This can include shredding or crushing the battery cells to create a “black mass” that contains a mixture of lithium, along with other metals like cobalt, nickel and manganese. Due to the high environmental and monetary cost of mining, it’s crucial that these valuable materials can be reused again once recycled.

The black mass powder created when an EV battery is ground up

The black mass powder created when an EV battery is ground up

Current difficulties

Even though EV battery recycling has come on in leaps and bounds in recent years, the process still faces its fair share of challenges. The diverse range of battery chemistries and designs complicates the recycling process meaning that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all all approach to the process. Also, the rapid evolution of EV battery technology means that recycling methods must remain flexible and be able to adapt to new battery types and materials.

It’s also worth noting that the economic aspect can’t be ignored because the cost of recycling must be balanced against the value of the recovered materials. Assuming that the market for EVs continues to grow (and this is by no means certain), economies of scale should in theory improve the viability of recycling operations and reduce costs.

So, despite its difficulties and technological challenges, the notion of a circular economy for EV batteries is not only appealing but necessary too and creating a sustainable loop that benefits both the economy and the environment is almost certainly achievable.

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