Recycling infrastructure must meet EV battery waste demand

Thursday, 14 November, 2019

Recycling infrastructure must meet EV battery waste demand

A study led by the University of Birmingham reveals that lithium-ion battery (LIB) recycling technologies are not keeping pace with the increasing uptake of electric vehicles (EVs).

Although EVs offer a solution for cutting pollution, governments and industry need to act now to develop recycling infrastructure to meet future needs. These were the findings of the University of Bimingham research, conducted alongside the Universities of Newcastle and Leicester and published in the journal Nature.

University of Birmingham Faraday Research Fellow and lead author Dr Gavin Harper said, “The recycling challenge is not straightforward: there is enormous variety in the chemistries, shapes and designs of lithium-ion batteries used in EVs.

“Individual cells are formed into modules, which are then assembled into battery packs. To recycle these efficiently, they must be disassembled and the resulting waste streams separated,” Dr Harper explained.

“As well as lithium, these batteries contain a number of other valuable metals, such as cobalt, nickel and manganese, and there is the potential to improve the processes which are currently used to recover these for re-use.”

The future extent of LIB waste

The problem of LIB waste is already significant and is set to grow as demand for EVs increases. Based on the one million electric cars sold in 2017, researchers calculated that 250,000 tonnes or half a million cubic metres of unprocessed pack waste will result when these vehicles reach the end of their lives.

Analysis by the Faraday Institution — the UK’s independent institute for electrochemical energy storage research — points to the need for eight gigafactories in the UK by 2040 to service the demand for LIBs. The UK will need to develop sources of supply for the critical materials required for these batteries, and recycled material could play an important role.

“Electrification of just 2% of the current global car fleet would represent a line of cars that could stretch around the circumference of the Earth — some 140 million vehicles,” study co-author and University of Leicester Professor Andrew Abbott said.

“Landfill is clearly not an option for this amount of waste. Finding ways to recycle EV batteries will not only avoid a huge burden on landfill, it will also help us secure the supply of critical materials, such as cobalt and lithium, that surely hold the key to a sustainable automotive industry.”

Finding a solution

The study identified several key challenges that engineers and policymakers will need to address, including:

  • Identifying second-use applications for end-of-life batteries
  • Developing rapid repair and recycling methods, particularly given that large-scale storage of electric batteries is potentially unsafe
  • Improving diagnostics of batteries, battery packs and battery cells, so the state of health of batteries can be accurately assessed prior to repurposing
  • Optimising battery designs for recycling to enable automated battery disassembly, safer than the current manual handling techniques
  • Designing new stabilisation processes that enable end-of-life batteries to be opened and separated, and developing techniques or processes to ensure that components are not contaminated during recycling.

“These batteries contain huge amounts of power and at the moment we are still relatively unprepared about how we deal with them when they reach the end of their life,” explained Newcastle University co-author Professor Paul Christensen, who is also working with a number of UK Fire and Rescue Services on developing protocols for dealing with LIB fires.

“One of the areas of research for this project is to look at automation and how we can safely and efficiently dismantle spent batteries and recover the valuable materials such as lithium and cobalt,” Professor Christensen said.

“But there’s also a public safety issue that needs addressing as second-life EV batteries become more widely available. What we need is an urgent look at the whole life cycle of the battery — from digging the materials out of the ground to disposing of them again at the end.”

Paul Anderson, Co-Director of the Birmingham Centre for Strategic Elements and Critical Materials, added, “Meeting these challenges will require a large amount of ambition as well as a consistent approach to policymaking. This is essential if we are to create solutions within the design process that will allow us to make a smooth and sustainable transition to electric vehicles.”

The ReLib Project

Many of the ideas suggested for recovery of high-value materials will be trialled by the Faraday Institution’s ReLiB fast-start project, funded by the Faraday Institution and  the ReCell Center at Argonne National Laboratory, funded by the US Department of Energy.

The aim of the ReLib Project is to establish the technological, economic and legal infrastructure required to optimise the efficiency of material management from lithium-ion batteries utilised in the automotive sector.

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