When an electric vehicle battery reaches the end of its life, it isn’t the end of the road for the battery.
The battery still has potential use cases. It can be given a second life as fixed energy storage for renewable energy in homes, and it can be sandwiched with other spent batteries to make a large energy storage system.
When batteries degrade beyond useful capacity or get damaged, we can recycle them to recover raw materials. These can be used to manufacture new lithium-ion batteries, reducing reliance on virgin materials.
Robin Brundle, Chairman of Technology Minerals, told us that the UK is in dire need of industrial-scale battery recycling technologies to deal with waste.
This article explores what happens to an EV battery at the end of its life, looking at second life use cases and recycling. We’ve partnered with Technology Minerals Plc (LON: TM1) for expert commentary on the recycling part.
Let’s jump in!
- Second life EV batteries
- EV battery recycling
- Technology Minerals and battery recycling
Second life EV batteries
When an EV battery reaches the end of its life, manufacturers can recycle it or reuse it, providing the battery’s cells are undamaged.
Giving spent EV batteries a chance to live on
Degradation is a natural part of a battery’s lifecycle, but the level of degradation that makes a battery no good for use in an EV isn’t that high.
Generally, an EV battery is considered spent when it reaches 70% of its original capacity, which equates to a 50kWh battery dropping to 35kWh capacity. Some manufacturers have tighter parameters, replacing batteries at 80% capacity or even 90%.
Why is repurposing EV batteries important?
At 70%, or even 60% or 50%, an old EV lithium-ion battery is still useful for energy storage and discharge, and it is here where it finds a second life.
In a second life application, specialist companies repurpose the battery cells. The battery cells are inspected, cleaned up, outfitted with new power electronics and software, and rehoused, ready for finishing and fitting.
Old EV batteries are often repurposed for renewable energy storage for solar panels, wind turbines and micro-hydro systems, effectively capturing off-grid energy for reuse anytime. This clean energy can power a house during a power outage or store energy at a charging hub to reduce demand on the grid.
Sparking a second life in EV batteries is essential for a circular economy, which aims to decouple economic activity from finite resources.
Tangible benefits to second-life EV batteries
The tangible benefits to second-life EV batteries are plentiful:
- Reduce the number of EV batteries recycled
- Lower the total carbon footprint of batteries and the supply chain
- Provide reserve capacity for grid infrastructure
- Lower energy storage system costs for consumers
- Increase used car values (second life applications have value)
When battery cells reach the end of the road
A lithium-ion battery with 70% useful capacity after service in an electric vehicle will be functional for fixed energy storage until it reaches around 40% capacity. Below 40%, the battery is considered spent and needs discarding.
When this happens, EV batteries are recycled to recover reusable materials and these materials feed the production of new EV batteries.
EV battery recycling
The recycling of lithium-ion batteries recovers useful materials like lithium, cobalt, nickel, manganese and constituent elements.
Additionally, 12V batteries are recyclable, especially the lead-acid variety, with around 97 per cent of the lead being recyclable.
Recovering precious resources
Recovered materials can be put back into the supply chain to make new lithium-ion batteries, reducing dependency on virgin materials.
The standard way to recycle a lithium-ion battery is to feed it into an enclosed machine with rotating hammers to break the battery apart. The electrolytes inside the battery are neutralised with caustic water, and the metals are recovered and filtered.
Shredding and sorting is an efficient recycling method, but the amount of material recovery isn’t as high as it could be.
Delamination is another option. This involves disassembling the cell and recovering materials from the individual foils.
What percentage of an EV battery is recyclable? That depends on the battery chemistry and who is recycling the battery.
The industry’s golden number is 90%, meaning only 10% of the battery is wasted, and 90% of the cell material is recovered.
Technology Minerals and battery recycling
Technology Minerals Plc is creating the UK’s first circular economy in the battery metals sector. Their state-of-the-art battery recycling facilities can recover metals in spent battery cells with a high level of refinement.
The company also explores, with a view to mining, cobalt, manganese, nickel and copper, the components found in lithium-ion batteries. In other words, they are involved in the entire mineral lifecycle.
We wanted to find out more about their efforts to recycle EV batteries, including the technology, process, and industry opportunities. So, we set up an interview.
Robin Brundle, Chairman of Technology Minerals, was kind enough to give us his time. Our interview starts with a pressing question.
Does the EV industry have a battery problem?
“In short, absolutely,” said Brundle. “As the industry continues to grow, we’re only now beginning to see just how significant the strain on the battery metals industry will be following the mass rollout of electric vehicles, with forecast supply deficits emerging for lithium as early as 2022, and 2030 for cobalt, respectively (Benchmark Minerals).”
“It has been suggested that primary lithium supply must increase from 80kt in 2020 to >350kt in 2030 – an increase of more than 300% — if the industry is to meet this burgeoning demand. What’s more, the battery supply chain itself is undercapitalised, putting even greater pressure on access to raw materials critical to battery production, and the transition to electric transport.”
“Whilst it’s too late to bridge that gap in time – with only eight years to go until sales of all new internal combustion engine cars are banned and replaced with EVs and hybrids – it’s now imperative that we look towards recycling to alleviate the industry’s reliance on raw materials and the impending shortages.”
Why are EV batteries so difficult to recycle?
“Lithium-ion batteries are not designed with recycling in mind,” said Brundle. “To ensure good electrical connection, most components are welded together, meaning they’re difficult to break apart and equally difficult to recover the raw materials from within the batteries.”
“In 2019, less than 5% of the metals in an end-of-life lithium-ion battery were successfully recycled, and the UK saw 18,000 tonnes of spent batteries being incinerated. But with the volume of batteries coming to end-of-life projected to be around 1.4 million packs per year by 2040 in the UK alone (Warwick Manufacturing Group), the UK is in dire need of industrial-scale battery recycling technologies.”
How is Technology Minerals Plc addressing the challenge?
“With battery supply chain shortages on the horizon, Technology Minerals was established to create a circular economy for battery metals through mining – supplying raw material critical for the growing battery market – and recycling, bringing new innovation and a UK-first capability to industrial-scale battery recycling,” said Brundle.
We wanted to know more about Technology Minerals’ relationship with Recyclus, so we asked about the nature of that.
“The company holds a 49% stake in Recyclus Group Ltd—the UK’s first company capable of recycling Li-ion and lead-acid batteries on an industrial scale. Recyclus is commissioning its first two plants in February 2022, with a goal to increase li-ion recycling volume from 8,300 tonnes in 2022, to 41,500 tonnes by 2027.”
“As far as Li-ion batteries are concerned, Recyclus is initially focused on ‘black mass’ sales to third parties. This ‘black mass’ can be refined back into raw materials for battery manufacturing, minimising waste and ameliorating supply shortages by providing battery manufacturers with readily accessible materials,” said Brundle.
“Contributing to the supply chain through recycling is clearly vital, but – as we’ve already touched upon – doing so safely is one of the real challenges with dismantling and recycling EV batteries. This is precisely why Recyclus is mechanising a previously manual process, as well as manufacturing storage and transportation boxes for the safe and secure movement of hazardous spent Li-ion batteries.”
“In doing so, we are able to prioritise the safety and sustainability of battery recycling practices to ensure that we are taking a responsible approach to the energy transition, as well as feeding back into the supply chain that is so critical to the rollout of EVs.”
It is estimated that by 2030, more than 20m tons of li-ion batteries from electric vehicles will reach the end of their life.
To put that scale into context, it is estimated there will be some 250,000 tonnes of spent EV battery packs from 2017’s EV sales alone.
The industry faces challenges with battery waste, but there are processes in motion to ensure that spent EV batteries don’t pile up.
Second life applications will help to keep still-useful batteries out of waste piles, and recycling efforts will help keep battery waste in check.
The biggest challenge the industry faces is scale, in terms of storing all the spent battery packs, testing and dismantling processes, and in the separation processes that recycling entails.
The world has a job on its hands, but thanks to companies like Technology Minerals, the first steps are already being taken.
If you like this article, you’ll also like our piece exploring graphene EV batteries and the future of electric vehicle batteries.