As electric cars roll towards the motoring mainstream, companies are gearing up to address one big environmental question: what to do with the lithium-ion batteries used to power them once they run out.
The millions of small lithium-ion batteries that are already used in everything from smartphones to electronic toothbrushes consume a lot of resources as it is — about $2bn of metals and minerals in 2015 alone, according to consultancy Roskill. Almost all of them end up in waste dumps or remain in unused gadgets in people’s homes.
The batteries used in electric cars are much bigger, last eight to 10 years, and will account for 90 per cent of the lithium-ion battery market by 2025, Roskill forecasts, increasing lithium demand fourfold and more than doubling demand for cobalt — two of their essential elements. The price of cobalt has already risen by more than 80 per cent this year.
However, while recycling small lithium-ion batteries is not widespread, a number of companies are hoping it will be different for electric cars and are working on ways to profit from a used car battery bonanza.
Since 2006, Umicore of Belgium has been one of the few companies recycling lithium-ion batteries, through a process of smelting and leaching with chemicals to recover metals. It is now operating a pilot process for recycling electric car batteries, it says, in preparation for the “sizeable” numbers that are likely to come to the market in 2025.
One problem is that lithium ion batteries in electric cars use a variety of chemical processes, making it difficult to develop standardised recycling.
“Everyone is using their own formulation,” said Linda Gaines, an analyst for the Center for Transportation Research at the Argonne National Laboratory in the US. “Lead acid batteries are way simpler.”
Oregon-based OnTo Technology aims to circumvent that by producing manufacturing quality battery electrode materials directly from spent batteries, rather than breaking down the individual components.
“By 2025 it’s certainly going to be a robust industry,” said founder Steve Sloop. “Between now and 2020, it’s learning how to practise this and getting these materials back into manufacturing that’s really important.”
Canadian recycling start-up Li-Cycle says to make it profitable you need to recycle all of the battery materials. It claims it can recycle all types of lithium-ion batteries recovering up to 90 per cent of materials including lithium, cobalt, copper, and graphite.
“You get the full economic value . . . that’s what will enable it to be profitable,” said Ajay Kochhar, the company’s chief executive and co-founder. “You need to look at it [in terms of] all the other valuable components contained to really understand what is going to enable this market.”
Mr Kochhar estimates over 11m tonnes of spent lithium-ion batteries will be discarded by 2030. The company is looking to process 5,000 tonnes a year to start with and eventually 250,000 tonnes — a similar amount to a processing plant for mined lithium, he said.
Carmakers are also looking at battery recycling.
In a tweet last July, Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk said the company’s battery Gigafactory in Nevada “will be fully powered by clean energy when complete & include battery recycling”.
In May, a corporate filing linked two top Tesla Motors executives, JB Straubel and Andrew Stevenson, with a company, Redwood Materials, that says on its website it is developing advanced technology for “materials recycling, remanufacturing, and reuse”.
“Governments will do something, they are not going to permit [electric car batteries] to end up in landfills,” said Jim Greenberger, executive director of NAATBatt International, a US battery trade association. “As more and more vehicles get put into the market and more and more come to the end of life the danger of that happening rises.”
China and the EU have already introduced rules that make carmakers responsible for recycling their batteries
Still, there is the question of whether the industry will be willing to use recycled materials, Ms Gaines said. Tyremakers are still reluctant to use recycled rubber, she pointed out.
“Historically there has been reluctance to use recycled materials partly for liability issues.” Lead-acid batteries, over 90 per cent of which are recycled, are “the poster child of managing to get it all to work,” she said.