By Zhangchen Wang
With the promises of reducing carbon emissions and contributing to a greener future, the popularity of electric vehicles is continuously growing, and both the government and private companies are paying more attention to and putting more investment in it.
However, as the market of electric vehicles keeps expanding, a topic that once did not attract much attention is also becoming urgent to be resolved: How can the scrapped lithium batteries of electric vehicles be recycled in the most effective way?
Electric vehicles have witnessed a remarkable surge in adoption worldwide. According to a recent report published by the International Energy Agency, one in every seven passenger cars sold globally in 2022 was an electric vehicle. At the same time, vehicle manufacturers and battery makers plan to invest $860 billion by 2030 in electric vehicles. Indeed, the electric vehicle offers a cleaner and more efficient alternative to traditional internal combustion engine vehicles, and it is both increasingly and widely accepted by the broad market.
However, new challenges arise with very new development, and these challenges have an impact on society as a whole. The lithium battery is the most important component that makes electric vehicles viable by providing considerable driving ranges comparable to traditional cars. However, just like any other electronic devices, lithium batteries are designed with a limited lifespan. The rapid increase in the number of electric vehicles has led to a corresponding rise in the number of discarded lithium batteries.
Although there is no unified regulation on the required battery life of electric vehicles yet, it is widely agreed that the average lifespan of electric vehicle batteries currently in use and on sale is approximately 15 years. Still, some people question that the life of the lithium battery may not exceed ten years while others argue that, if the battery is used reasonably, it can maintain normal operation for twenty years. Nevertheless, in any case, as a product that was introduced to the market about a decade ago, the lithium batteries of many of the earliest electric vehicles are already facing the end of their lifespans.
The disposal and management of scrapped lithium batteries pose significant environmental concerns. The current way of recycling lithium batteries is to simply shred everything down into powder, and then either melt it down or use a solution to dissolve it before recovering the useful metals mixture in it. However, this method of decomposition has relatively large safety hazards because it can easily trigger an explosion if not operated properly; not to mention that only about 5% of scrapped lithium batteries can be effectively recycled in this way globally. In addition, the waste generated during the recycling process is also pollutive.
The main components of lithium batteries contain toxic heavy metals such as nickel, cobalt, and manganese. The electrolyte also contains fluorinated organic compounds that can be easily hydrolyzed in the air and produce harmful substances such as phosphorus pentafluoride and hydrogen fluoride. Improper disposal methods can lead to the release of toxic chemicals into the environment, contaminating soil and water sources, and eventually posing threats to both the ecosystems and human health.
Recycling waste lithium batteries is not only of great significance to environmental protection, but also can generate considerable economic benefits. Extracting and refining raw materials for battery production is energy-intensive and costly. The metals in the battery usually account for more than 50% of the total price of the lithium battery. This has not yet calculated the losses caused to the local environment and ecosystem —mainly African countries—during mining. Efficient recycling means will contribute to the overall sustainability of the battery industry and even help to lower the production costs of new batteries.
Additionally, although it is not easy to quickly improve the techniques and efficiency of lithium battery recycling, scrapped batteries can find new life through second-life applications. While these batteries may no longer be suitable for electric vehicles, they can still be utilized to store and supply electricity for various applications, such as residential energy storage, grid stabilization, and off-grid power solutions. This method effectively extends the lifecycle of batteries before eventual recycling.
Currently, the world’s major economies—including China, the EU, and the U.S.—are all continuously promoting research and development in lithium battery recycling. Similar to China’s dominance in lithium battery production, the player that takes the lead in the field of battery recycling will also have a decisive impact on the future of the electric vehicle market.
China has made significant progress by first establishing comprehensive regulatory frameworks to set guidelinesfor lithium battery recycling. Through overall leadership and planning, companies with relevant capabilities can collect, manage, and recycle scrapped batteries more efficiently, and can also discover the areas that still need to be improved more quickly. In this way, resources can be more effectively allocated through more targeted research and investment. However, there are not many professional recycling companies in China. Although some automobile and battery companies—including BYD and CATL—also have recycling capabilities, GEM is almost the only major company that specializes in lithium battery recycling.
In comparison, even though the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recognizes the importance of battery recycling and provides guidance on safe disposal practices, there is no federal legislation specifically targeting this field yet. Thus, there is an awkward imbalance within the U.S. lithium battery recycling industry. An analysis suggests that the industry “has boomed too soon,” leading to a situation where there are too many recycling capabilities and too few scrapped batteries. Moreover, with the continuous improvement of recycling technology, the existing recycling capacity in the U.S. may even face obsolescence before there are enough scrapped batteries to process.
Therefore, while no country has yet achieved the level of dominance seen in China’s lithium battery production, every country still has the opportunity to take the lead in the battery recycling market. This vital role is still up for grabs. Both China and the U.S. have made some progress, but their industries in this field also have obvious shortcomings. After identifying the aforementioned problems and addressing the existing challenges, both countries stand a good chance of success in this area.
Notably, another logical possibility to resolve this issue is to work towards the US.-China cooperation in the field of lithium battery recycling. By focusing on this singular issue and combining their strengths and expertise, the two countries can unlock tremendous mutual—and global—benefits. In the short-run, the U.S. can benefit from China’s extensive battery production and utilization, ensuring a steady supply of discarded batteries for the overexpanded recycling capabilities, and China can enjoy a more sustainable raw-material supply chain for new batteries. In the long-run, they can learn from the successes and failures together to advance battery recycling technologies to develop faster and make greater impacts.
Currently, both countries have set high standards on certain aspects of recycling, including environmental regulations and product quality standards, which indicates the high level of commitment and attention that both governments are dedicating to the recycling process. The two countries could even set standards together for global recycling practices with their market influences to promote more efficient and sustainable battery recycling criteria, also operating as global leaders in this field. Admittedly, there would be obvious hurdles to cross given the current state of holistic bilateral relations; but hurdles can be overcome if both players want to reach the end goal and win the game.
About the author: Zhangchen Wang, Research Assistant Intern, BCCC Program
Source: This article was published by ICAS