When an EV battery comes to the end of its life (typically around 10 years), it doesn't end up in a landfill. Thankfully, regulations ban the incineration and disposal of EV batteries in landfills. So, what does happen?
When an EV battery dies, likely, there is still some charge capacity - not enough to power an EV - but enough for other energy storage purposes. Depending on the battery condition, it is awarded a grade to indicate its efficiency. These grades will determine whether the battery is for recycling or repurposing.
If an EV is graded for repurposing, this typically means that the battery will be used for secondary energy storage uses, such as power packs or solar energy repositories. While this effectively gives an EV battery a second life, the options for secondary battery use are currently limited, but not for long! EV battery technology is growing more powerful year on year - and with exciting developments like single-state batteries on the horizon, second-life uses for batteries will also grow. The most exciting of these possibilities? Sustainable grid management. This would mean that used EV batteries would store clean energy, powering the grid during peak usage.
Want to learn more about single-state batteries? Check out our blog: How do EVs work?
While repurposing is hugely beneficial to EV battery sustainability, not all batteries can be repurposed. So, what then? It's off to the recycling plant to extract the metals and minerals for new EV batteries.
While in theory, recycling sounds ideal - less dependence on mining new materials, less waste etc. - it isn’t as straightforward as it sounds.
As battery packs are typically welded shut, the steel casing must be safely cracked open before the cells are moved (this can be a dangerous process as damage to the cells can cause accidental fires or explosions). Once the pack has been safely dismantled, the cells are processed to extract the materials. This happens in one of two ways: shredding and smelting or dissolving it in acid.
The first option is most common as it is relatively cheap, unfortunately, it loses a lot of the materials in the process and is powered by fossil fuels. The second option is more expensive, preserves a lot more of the material, but consumes a lot of energy and produces toxic gas and wastewater.
It is estimated that over 2 million litres of water are required to extract one tonne of lithium using these types of mining.
It's true: battery recycling has some way to come. Fortunately, there have already been positive developments in this area. In January 2022, resource management company, Veolia, announced its first EV battery recycling plant in the UK, capable of recycling 20% of the UK's EV batteries by 2024 using 'urban mining'. This process protects the materials through chemical extraction, reducing water consumption and emissions by up to 50%.
In addition to 'urban mining', another development was announced in 2021 by the Faraday Institution. By using ultrasonic waves, the research team discovered that materials are extracted 100 times quicker than traditional processes, resulting in a higher purity of recovered materials. With this discovery, the research team are now working alongside battery manufacturers and recycling companies intending to license their technology and bring ultrasonic recycling to the market.
These achievements come off the back of the Faraday Institution Battery Challenge, which looks to support world-class research into developing world-class, efficient and safe battery packs by 2035. The goal: create an EV that is at least 95% recyclable.
Just watch this space...