The electric vehicle lifecycle : EV battery recycling and reuse


By Steven Shackell

Electric vehicles (EVs) sparked a revolution in the automotive industry and enabled consumers and commercial transportation to move towards decarbonization. However, EV manufacturers face criticism over their higher carbon footprint compared to standard internal combustion engine vehicle (ICEV) manufacturers and for producing battery systems that contain rare raw materials and create hazardous waste.

In the last few years, the EV industry has taken significant strides towards minimizing the carbon footprint of an EV lifecycle and enabling second-life applications or recycling of their battery systems. This article examines how electric vehicles are recycled or reused and identifies opportunities for a circular economy of the EV industry aimed toward decarbonization.

Electric vehicle battery sustainability

While an EV’s carbon footprint is higher than an ICEV during the manufacturing process, EVs produce less than half the total emissions of an average ICEV across their lifetime. However, as EV demand and production grow, so does the demand for raw materials and rare-earth magnets. EVs require rare-earth magnets for their motor technologies and raw materials such as lithium, cobalt, and graphite for the battery systems.

The production of these battery systems significantly contributes to the negative environmental impact of EV production if manufacturers do not use recycled materials. These materials are a finite resource that requires large mining operations, vast transportation networks, and more extensive refinement processes for their use in batteries.

Lithium and cobalt mining also requires extraction from physically and socially sensitive environments, enabling criticism and questionability of their ethical sustainability. Luckily, EVs' high metal and raw material content makes them desirable for end-of-life recycling, which incentivizes manufacturers to seek sustainable mining solutions and may eventually limit the need for future mining.

Electric vehicle recycling

Electric vehicles are relatively simpler to recycle than ICEVs. They have fewer overall components. While EV recycling is often associated with battery recycling, it also includes raw materials such as copper, steel, and aluminum used for the vehicle body and other components.

Unfortunately, recycled materials can be subject to price fluctuations, making them less desirable for use by businesses, which can lead to wasted materials. To manage the challenges of recycling EVs, the circular economy of recycling must start at the beginning of the vehicle’s design, with manufacturers making it simple and economical to pursue full-vehicle recycling.

Recycling comes with challenges. Manufacturers must design for a middle ground of resource use. For example, if a vehicle minimizes the raw materials it uses, the need for initial mining extraction may be reduced. However, it may make recycling and recovering that same raw material much harder, making the initial extraction net negative. Designing EVs to be easily repaired or recycled is the first step in enabling a sustainable circular economy.

EV battery recycling

Aluminum and steel used in the transportation industry account for nearly a quarter of all aluminum and steel demand across all industries. Luckily, these raw materials have long been proven recyclable via the ICEV industry. However, battery recycling is a more novel process that requires several key steps that manufacturers must accommodate in their designs at the beginning of a battery’s life.

Collection, sorting, and rating

EV batteries must be collected from the vehicle at the end of their automotive life. This process can be dangerous, as battery systems can still hold a significant amount of energy and require skilled technicians. Manufacturers must design battery systems that can be safely removed from vehicle bodies to streamline this process. Having a swappable battery pack could also solve the problem of long charging times that come with EVs by simply replacing the depleted pack with a fully charged pack.

When a battery is collected, it must be sorted and rated by different categories. For example, if a brand-new EV is in an accident, the battery may retain its entire capacity and be reusable. In other instances, EV batteries may have reached the end of their operable life, in which case they are qualified to be recycled.

Caption: An EV battery pack containing many battery modules

Dismantling and material recovery

Batteries that are not suitable for second-life applications undergo a dismantling process. Battery modules and cells are removed from the automotive battery pack, and the components are shredded to separate and expose the different materials.

The shredding process creates a variety of materials that, depending on the type of shredding and the composition of the recycled batteries, are sorted for further processing. The shredding process usually creates a ‘black mass’ made up of battery cathodes and anodes that can then be subjected to pyrometallurgy (smelting) or hydrometallurgy (leaching) processes to extract the raw metal materials such as lithium, cobalt, nickel, manganese, and aluminum.

Current lithium-ion battery recycling processes can recapture 95% of the raw materials originally used, leaving only 5% of the recycled material unusable. According to the US Department of Energy, one ton of battery-grade lithium can be generated by recycling 28 tons of spent lithium-ion batteries, as opposed to mining 250 tons of ore.

EV battery reuse

Setting manufacturing targets on maximizing recyclability could result in disincentivizing battery reuse strategies. In 2022, Nature identified that this could be the case with EVs and their battery systems: the demand for materials for new vehicles results in recycling those materials rather than prolonging their use in the existing vehicles via repair.

EV battery reuse should be the primary goal for manufacturers, with the intent that battery systems retain their capacity and performance for as long as reasonably possible. For example, if a brand-new EV is in an accident and the battery system is safe to reuse, these batteries can be repurposed for portable energy storage systems, renewable energy storage, or other applications to extend their lifespan before being recycled. The remainder of the car, such as the steel and aluminum of the body, can be recycled.

The cycle of EV batteries

Electric vehicles drive a transformative shift toward decarbonizing the transportation industry, even though they demand a higher initial carbon footprint and rare material demand during manufacturing. The EV industry’s advances in battery manufacturing, recycling, and reuse are forging a circular economy for its natural resources, essential for sustainable mobility and environmental preservation. EV manufacturers must balance minimizing their carbon footprint and maximizing resource efficiency for a cleaner future while meeting consumers' demands.

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