The electrification of the car industry is still in its baby years, and yet we should already be thinking of what will happen in a few years, when millions of electric vehicles (EVs) start getting retired.
In 2021, EV sales more than doubled to 6.6 million, representing close to 9% of the global car market and more than tripling their market share from two years earlier . Assuming that the average lifespan of an EV battery pack is 10 to 15 years, we will soon start seeing the first electric cars getting retired.
Considering that EV batteries —like any other battery— degrade slowly over time instead of suddenly failing, it’s reasonable to think that those EVs retiring soon will still have batteries that can hold some percentage of their original charge capacity. However, many customers will not want a car that can only hold, say, 60% of its original charge capacity. Finding a sustainable solution for this situation will be critical for the successful global transition to electric vehicles and its long term sustainability.
Fortunately, there are multiple possible solutions, even though none of them are easy to implement. Let’s take a look at the top 3 possible futures for an EV battery.
1. Recycle its materials
EV batteries are composed of valuable minerals like lithium and cobalt, which come with their own environmental challenges, especially for the local communities where they get mined. For example, lithium is primarily extracted from Australia and South America, but this process requires using billions of gallons of water a year with a dire environmental effect. Cobalt reserves found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are being mined by workers who experience labor abuses .
Recycling old batteries seems at first glance like the most reasonable solution, because it would help reduce the industry’s dependency on new virgin materials. However, recycling an EV battery pack is costly due to its hazardous complexity; the process starts by shredding the batteries, and then by breaking them down further with heat or chemicals until the different materials are properly separated. A startup founded by a former Tesla executive, Redwood Materials, is going this route, and they already got the attention of car manufacturers like Ford . A Canadian battery resource recovery company, Li-Cycle, is following suit with GM .
Other companies, like Ascend Elements, are trying to go one step further, transforming retired lithium-ion batteries into a better product: batteries that charge faster and last longer. Instead of using high-temperature furnaces to smelt metals and separate the materials, this company has patented a new process that shreds batteries multiple times until it creates a fine powder they call “black mass”; this powder is then used to create new battery cathodes that have a 30% longer lifecycle .
Their ultimate goal is to create a circular battery economy, where mining new materials is not necessary. In this scenario, EV battery manufacturers buy all their required materials from recycling companies, and then sell the new battery packs to the car manufacturers. Then, car manufacturers take the retired batteries that were sold years before back to the recycling centers, and the cycle starts again. Nonetheless, this model requires economic incentives to ensure that costs are kept below the costs of mining, and even though that’s not today’s case, many hope that the economies of scale will fix this.
2. Find a new purpose
Given the inherent challenges of the recycling process described earlier, an alternative approach might have a more immediate application: repurposing old EV battery packs to build energy storage systems. These can support large power stations by contributing towards grid stabilisation and even help with supply reconstruction following a power station outage.
Mercedes-Benz has started doing this with a new venture, Mercedes-Benz Energy , and they are not alone. Startups like RePurpose Energy, Smartville Energy and ReJoule have received funding from the California Energy Commission Electric Program Investment Charge (EPIC) funding pool .
Battery storage systems can be used to directly balance the intermittency of wind and solar generation in a world that is working to transition consumption to renewable energy sources. A system like this can also be used short-term to store energy when electricity is cheaper, and then discharge it during peak hours, reducing customer load on existing power plants.
One of the biggest challenges of building these storage systems is data. Battery manufacturer, cathode material, battery condition, and usage history are all critical data points for the potential secondary market. The Global Battery Alliance has proposed a “Battery Passport”, endorsed during the 2021 G7 Leaders’ Meeting; a platform for securely sharing information and data across the industry value chain .
3. Store and wait
Understandably, the used EV battery market is still full of uncertainty, so a final, cheaper but disappointing alternative to this whole problem is to store old batteries in warehouses, waiting for the future to come.
Spiers New Technologies, recently acquired by Cox Automotive, is a company attempting to do a little bit of everything: disassemble, fix, refurbish, recycle and store old EV battery packs. A recent Wired article described how their warehouse in Oklahoma City contains towers of retired EV batteries . The article mentions in an interview with Dirk Spiers, CEO & founder of the company, that “they’re still figuring out the plan for many of the batteries in that warehouse, but he believes that in the end, they’ll be viewed as an opportunity, not waste.”
A report by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from July 2021  analyzed the impacts of end-of-life lithium-ion batteries going into the municipal solid waste management process, which showed a growing amount of fires in these storage facilities primarily caused by issues with small consumer devices like cell phones, tablets or laptops.
The risk of fires will only increase as more batteries get stored, waiting for a significant change in the recycling/repurposing space.
EVs are projected to account for 45 percent of the U.S. market in 2035, up from a forecast of 32 percent in 2030 . In its plans to cut CO2 emissions over the next few years, the European Union proposed a ban on the sale of new internal combustion engine cars from 2035 .
Abandoning fossil fuels and internal combustion engine cars in favor of electric vehicles cannot happen fast enough; it’s an exciting greener future that will hopefully come alongside a move to renewable energy sources. My hope is that with regulation across the world slowly moving towards that electrified future, the battery recycling market will spark with innovation in the coming years. It’s imperative that we find viable solutions, both economically and environmentally, to address the upcoming EV battery challenges.
Did you like this article? Subscribe to get new posts by email.