Lithium-ion Batteries: The problem child of EVs?

Feb 16, 2020

With the global rush towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions and decarbonizing personal transport, the “EV-Boom” is set to radically alter the automotive industry. This will, incontestably, lead to a deluge of problems related to decommissioning and recycling of electric vehicles at the end of their lives - some more complex than others. One pertinent concern is going to be the management of end-of-life (EOL) energy storage units or, more specifically, lithium-ion batteries (LIBs). To put matters into perspective: 

“Electrification of only 2% of the current global car fleet would represent a line of cars that could stretch around the Earth.” [1] 

So now the question that begs to be answered is: What are we going to do about it? This short text aims to shed some light on the dynamics surrounding recycling and reusing of LIBs and areas that require further attention. 

1. The Infancy of reusing

In the hierarchy of waste management (Figure 1), reusing is more desirable than recycling, because it helps to derive the maximum economic utility and curtails the environmental ramifications. Banking on the concurrent penetration of renewable energy systems (RES), many automakers are already piloting various programs for the second life of EV LIBs. The use of high-tech sensors would allow the monitoring of batteries in the field and a more compatible match with their second parents: energy storage systems. However, there are two important things to note here. Firstly, the technologies to determine state-of-health (SOH) of LIBs intended for second-life are still in their infancy and secondly, even if all the benefits of second-use are reaped, recycling (if not landfill) is the inescapable destiny of all batteries.

Figure 1. Hierarchy of waste management and the lithium-ion battery recycling process. Adapted from [1]. 

 

2. The Efficiency and Economics of Recycling 

Recent life-cycle studies have indicated that the current recycling processes of LIB might not be as “eco-friendly” as primary production. As shown in Figure 2, both nickel manganese cobalt oxide (NMC) and nickel cobalt aluminum oxide (NCA), which are common chemistries of lithium-ion batteries, have higher net CO2 emissions as compared with direct manufacturing under some of the current recycling methods [2]. More efficient recycling methods are urgently required to make the economic and environmental case for recycling, which at present is massively reliant on the content of cobalt.

However, as the use of cobalt in cathodes plummets due to environmental or other reasons, it will also drag down the economic viability of current recycling processes. Cobalt is topographically concentrated in the Democratic Republic of Congo where artisanal mines have led to the devastation of habitats and social burdens (such as child labor) on some of the world’s most marginalized communities. Hence concerted efforts are required to develop innovative recycling technologies for achieving circularity in the lithium-ion battery value chain. 
 

In addition, hydrometallurgical processes, used to separate metals from EOL LIBs in current recycling techniques, are plagued with gargantuan capital costs [1]. This causes the direct extraction of metals to be more financially attractive than separation processes.

Figure 2. Net CO2 emissions avoided by common lithium-ion battery types under current recycling processes as compared with direct manufacturing (NMC=Lithium nickel manganese cobalt oxide, NCA=Lithium nickel cobalt aluminum oxide, LFP= Lithium iron phosphate). Adapted from [2]. 

 

3. The Intricacy of Value-Chain Strategy 

The third, and last, determinant of the LIB recycling industry is the value-chain of the batteries at the end of their life, which includes processes such as collection, transportation, storage, and logistics. Currently, there are multiple methods being employed for these processes in different countries. For example,  Denmark has two major industrial collectors, the Netherlands requires producers to establish accessible collection points while France and Italy both have licensed bodies or consortia (respectively) which act on producers’ behalf to collect and transport waste portable batteries. However, while these methods are already in place the majority of the EU countries are not achieving their required targets: in 2017, the overall collection rate in the EU was 46% with the bulk of countries lying around 40-50% [3]. Furthermore, as the laws for the aforementioned processes differ from country to country (even in closely-knit countries like in the European Union), the problem of developing a strategy for them is going to be intricate and complex. To give an eye-opening example, the definition of a simple term such as “battery” differs in the various EU jurisdictions, which are all, supposedly, translated from the same EU-directive. However, with the formation of the European Battery Alliance (EBA) and the EU-directive becoming more strict year-by-year, this situation can be expected to change - at least in the EU. 

In conclusion, as our roads get flooded with EVs, it is imperative that strategies and technologies are developed for recycling, reusing and repurposing of LIBs. Although the current state-of-the-art paints a grim picture, the ongoing research in a number of projects and institutes such as Faraday Institution ReLiB Project, UK; CSIRO in Australia; and ReLieVe, Lithorec, AmplifII, and our own Project ReCell in the EU, means that the future of EV battery recycling does not seem as dark as the batteries themselves! 

About ReCell

Project ReCell was founded in June 2019 by a team of 9 MSc SELECT students studying at KTH Royal Institute of Technology (Sweden), TU Eindhoven (Netherlands), Instituto Superior Técnico (Portugal) and Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (Spain). We aim to make a cardinal contribution to achieving circularity in the EU’s lithium-ion battery value chain by collaborating with different partners and delving deeper into areas of policy-making for batteries, battery recycling and reusing technologies, industry best practices and business opportunities. Our industrial partner is the European Battery Alliance (EBA) and current collaborations include International Energy Agency (IEA), PV Magazine International and Project VALUABLE. To know more about our project and team please visit: www.recell-eu.com

To follow our regular updates and publications please visit our LinkedIn page: https://www.linkedin.com/company/eu-recell/
If you’re interested in our current findings or want to collaborate with us please send us an email at: (recell.eu@gmail.com).

References 
[1] G. Harper et al. , “Recycling lithium-ion batteries from electric vehicles,” Nature , vol. 575, no. 7781, pp. 75–86, Nov. 2019.
[2] R. E. Ciez and J. F. Whitacre, “Examining different recycling processes for lithium-ion batteries,” Nature Sustainability, vol. 2, no. 2, pp. 148–156, Feb. 2019. 
[3]    Eurostat, “Batteries and accumulators collected for recycling,” Eurostat, 2017.
[Online]. Available: https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/.


By: Attabik Awan, co-founder of ReCell

Published on: 16.02.2020


 


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