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Over the last year, we are getting used to seeing electric vehicles on UK roads. The trend in recent years shows that more and more people are starting to purchase new battery electric vehicles as an alternative to the more conventional internal combustion powered vehicles.
However, little is known about the end-of-life (EOL) of the lithium-ion batteries (LIB) that go into these vehicles. The truth is that not many people know what to do with a used LIB or, even less, why it is important to recover them at their EOL and give the battery a second life. Global original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) are becoming aware of this issue and starting to implement some of the opportunities they have in reusing, remanufacturing and recycling automotive LIBs.
Why is it important to recycle batteries?
Batteries have a limited lifetime and tons of dead batteries will be accumulated over the next few years. Besides a negative impact on the environment, growing battery demand and production could increase the price of raw materials like lithium, cobalt or nickel.
Although there is a huge opportunity for the EU automotive industry – some companies are already recycling these batteries and trying to design more efficient processes to recover value – the lithium-ion battery recycling industry has not fully matured yet. To achieve the estimated volumes in the future, the industry needs to improve the current strategies and processes. There is an increasing variety of electric vehicle (EV) battery configurations, meaning that the cost of recycling these batteries is typically high due to the inherent complexities of the engineering design.
The rise of EVs could leave us with a big battery waste problem. Lots of batteries are sent abroad to be incinerated or just piled up in scrap yards (Authorised Treatment Facilities, ATFs) across the UK, only because it is cheaper and less burdensome to do so, rather than trying to get them back into the automotive industry supply chain.
The complexity of EV battery recovery processes and the high upfront investment is the main obstacle to implementing any recovery operation, whether it be repair, remanufacture, repurpose or recycling. Currently in the EU, the value of the recycled raw materials or recovered battery components is not enough to compensate the investment and labour needed to get these materials and components back into the supply chain. However, this will change as the EV battery industry grows and EOL battery volumes go up.
So, who is ultimately responsible for End-of-Life batteries?
Battery producers are responsible for minimising the adverse effects of waste batteries on the environment. They have the obligation to comply with ever-tightening legislation and procedures such as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) for waste battery collection, shipping and disposal for instance.
However, who ultimately has the power to decide what to do with used EV batteries: the end user, the electric vehicle manufacturer or the government?
Although EPR regulations make OEMs responsible for providing the infrastructure to support a correct disposal, it is the customer, as the owner of the vehicle and, by extension, the battery, who decides what happens to it once the battery has reached its EOL. Then, if the customer does not see any value in the battery, the customer will just dispose the battery in the most convenient way possible, regardless of its potential value.
Then, what is the value behind second life batteries?
At present, recycling is the most convenient recovery route and by law, the last option available, as landfilling batteries has been banned since 2009. However, giving the disposed but still usable LIBs a second life in other applications can bring immense value from the manufacturing of batteries back into the automotive, energy or other sectors, while also adhering to social, economic and environmental principles.
Most of the time, it is difficult to discern the difference between a brand-new and second-life recovered battery. Some cosmetic defects aside, it is mainly the capacity charge that degrades over time. Therefore, the key is to match the “right” batteries with the “right” application.
If the customer is made aware of the value that can be gained from a used EV battery, there will be an added incentive to drive initiatives between customers and OEMs. This awareness and potential initiatives can support the development of a greater number of second use opportunities thus supporting the transition of the automotive supply chain to a more circular economy.
A circular economy for the automotive supply chain will ultimately boost the UK economy from within, making the most of what we already have, rather than paying overseas economies to supply materials and paying again to get rid of our valuable waste.
Authors – Miguel Lozano, Alberto Minguela
Alberto Fernandez Minguela