By: Emily Atkins
Sustainability-minded fleet buyers looking at EVs need to consider not only the total cost of ownership, but also the lifecycle of the vehicles they are buying. Because they are relatively new on the market, end-of-life scenarios for EV batteries are still in the development phase.
It is a growing concern. A report by propulsion Quebec says that by 2030 there could be up to 210,000 end-of-life (EOL) EV batteries in Canada.
The typical hybrid vehicle uses a nickel metal hydride (NiMH) battery. Plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) and pure battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) use a lithium-ion (li-ion) battery. Depending on how much energy they store, EV batteries can weigh between 230 kg and 600 kg.
When EVs are ready to come off the road – at about eight to 10 years old – the battery pack typically still has 80 percent of its charging capability. To simply dispose of these batteries would be irresponsible and even dangerous, as well as wasteful of a potential economic resource, says Maria Kelleher, principal of Toronto-based Kelleher Environmental, an EV battery researcher.
That's why considerable research is underway looking into to re-use these battery packs once they are removed from vehicles. Currently, it's estimated that re-use applications could add between five and 30 years to the battery's useful lifespan, according to Kelleher. "You reuse every bit of them that you can and then when they're no good in reuse, you recycle them and recover the metals to go back into the making of new batteries," she says.
Many OEMs are hard at work on EV battery re-use, often alongside research partners and battery manufacturers. At Audi, for example, engineers have been experimenting with using used EV batteries for material handling equipment in the manufacturing plants. They are also looking at how used batteries could be utilized for auxiliary and buffer storage on local power grids with varied charging and discharging scenarios.
“What this means is that some batteries bound for recycling could end up being reused on the power grid for a while first," says Alexander Kupfer, who works on sustainable product development at Audi. "Only once they can no longer serve this function would they be broken down into their individual components using state-of-the-art recycling processes."
BMW Group has installed recovery systems for end-of-life vehicles in 30 countries, while the Volkswagen Group and other suppliers share a goal of re-using 97 percent of the raw materials in the long term.
Nissan has been working on integrating EV batteries into stationary energy storage since 2010. The company opened a factory for the reuse and refabrication of used lithium-ion batteries from EVs in March 2018. Reused and refabricated lithium-ion batteries are also sold as replacement batteries for EVs and used in stationary power storage systems, electric forklifts and other applications.
The technologies that enable the reuse of EV batteries have come a long, way, says Kelleher, so much that the price for energy storage is coming down quickly, making solar and wind power much more viable than in the past. "Even Saudi Arabia now uses solar plus battery rather than oil based energy because it's cheaper," she notes.
The recycling challenge
Eventually, however, the cells will reach the end of their useful life. It's at this point that how they are made becomes important.
Cobalt, a key ingredient in li-ion batteries, has been identified as a conflict mineral, coming from places where it is mined using unsafe practices and often by indentured or child labourers. In recent years manufacturers have focused on corporate responsibility, and this has meant ensuring their supply chains do not rely on child labour or other violations of human rights. Many have signed on as members of the Global Battery Alliance of the World Economic Forum, which ensures the value-added chain of raw materials for batteries is socially and ecologically sustainable.
In order to clean up their supply chain, major corporations are trying to reduce their reliance on cobalt, which has led to a strong focus on reducing or eliminating cobalt from the chemistry. Tesla, for one, stated earlier this year that it would develop a cobalt-free battery.
And while this is the socially responsible position, it has an impact on the battery's end of life because EV batteries are already expensive to recycle. "The reason they recycle batteries today, or bother to recycle lithium-ion batteries, is because of the cobalt. And so, if there is no cobalt there's nothing of value," says Kelleher.
Nonetheless, battery recyclers are working on a variety of technologies to reclaim materials from end-of-life cells. Li-Cycle is an Ontario-based startup that is developing a process and the infrastructure to recycle 80 to 100 percent of the materials in li-ion batteries.
The goal, says the company's founder, AJ Kochar, is to "ensure that electric vehicles and lithium-ion batteries have a truly positive environmental impact over their entire life cycle. Li-Cycle aims to create a true closed-loop system, enabling low-cost, environmentally sustainable recycling processes…to support the battery industry as it continues to drive global electrification."