DATE: November 6, 2019
SNIP: In 2017, sales of electric vehicles exceeded one million cars per year worldwide for the first time1. Making conservative assumptions of an average battery pack weight of 250 kg and volume of half a cubic metre, the resultant pack wastes would comprise around 250,000 tonnes and half a million cubic metres of unprocessed pack waste, when these vehicles reach the end of their lives. Although re-use and current recycling processes can divert some of these wastes from landfill, the cumulative burden of electric-vehicle waste is substantial given the growth trajectory of the electric-vehicle market. This waste presents a number of serious challenges of scale; in terms of storing batteries before repurposing or final disposal, in the manual testing and dismantling processes required for either, and in the chemical separation processes that recycling entails.
Given that the environmental footprint of manufacturing electric vehicles is heavily affected by the extraction of raw materials and production of lithium ion batteries, the resulting waste streams will inevitably place different demands on end-of-life dismantling and recycling systems.
The lithium-ion batteries that EVs run on are made from metals that are mined at a serious environmental and human toll, and from supplies that won’t last forever. When those batteries die, they’re liable to join the tens of millions of tons of spent electronics piling up as e-waste in landfills around the world.
“It is important that we anticipate problems before they happen,” said lead study author Gavin Harper, a research fellow at the University of Birmingham’s Faraday Institution. “We have seen in the past with car tires and fridges how waste mountains can arise if we don’t anticipate waste management problems.”
[E]ventually, EV batteries will reach the end of their useful life, at which point they need to be recycled. Today, Harper said, most recycling revolves around using heat to melt the batteries down to slag, followed by chemical separation techniques that recover specific metals like cobalt. But these so-called pyro and hydro-metallurgical techniques are energy intensive and produce toxic gas byproducts, and the materials they recover are often low quality.