Sustainability of EV Batteries: Recycling vs. Reuse

Recycling or Reuse – Looking at the End-of-Life of EV Batteries

By Ellie Gabel

EVs will be among the most influential names in sustainable transportation so long as the industry can solve one issue — battery life cycles. Batteries have relatively short life spans with a recipe of toxic metals and chemicals. Throwing them into landfills may do more environmental harm than good in the name of EVs. Battery recycling and reuse are discussions in the industry, but which one is better?

The Case for Recycling EV Batteries

Several recycling methods are in practice, including direct, hydrometallurgical and pyrometallurgical recycling. Varied energy requirements and recovery rates make them inconsistently triumphant. EV battery recycling follows a straightforward process, usually involving these steps:

  1. Collection
  2. Taking apart the batteries
  3. Separating solid and liquid components and parts
  4. Processing each category

The world needs battery recycling to place fewer stressors on the environment miners strip of resources. Additionally, corporations would save countless dollars by harnessing the potential of expensive metals like cobalt and lithium again.

Plus, the fact that lithium-ion batteries may perform better after recycling is a hidden boon still undergoing exploration. Analyzing batteries in their most essential, recyclable elements may force engineers and designers to craft a new blueprint for a prototype made of more readily recyclable materials.

Sustainability of EV Batteries: Looking inside an electric car
Nissan Leaf cutaway showing part of the battery, at the 2009 Tokyo Motor Show.
Credit: Tennen-Gas – Own work

Challenges and Limitations of EV Battery Recycling

The ability to execute recycling in batteries’ current states safely and efficiently is challenging and not viable. Splitting the complex electrical and chemical aspects presents safety and financial concerns in desperate need of funding and technological enhancement.

The infrastructure for recycling batteries is also minimal to nonexistent, depending on the region. It’s expensive to set up because of its sector-specific requirements, and corporations need more incentive or intrinsic motivation to undergo these massive projects. This is why most EV batteries head to landfills unfairly and, sometimes, illegally.

When looking for the definitive number on how many lithium-ion batteries get recycled, many stumble upon 5%, though this is a misleading number when looking at the globe. Rates vary drastically depending on where the lens is. Regardless, the number is still lower than it should be worldwide and action is crucial.

The Case for Reusing EV Batteries

What if corporations didn’t have to worry about lengthy recycling processes or erecting new buildings for it? Experts are exploring battery reuse for this reason. It provides similar environmental and economic benefits to recycling by reducing raw material extraction to salvage nature.

Overmining has created nickel shortages and an irregular supply chain for many of batteries’ other materials. It minimizes waste and stabilizes production. Additionally, reuse promotes a circular economy in a way recycling doesn’t quite do.

Instead of using energy, water and labor resources to take a battery apart, researchers want to keep the tech intact, extend its life span and place it back into an EV. This thought process also applies to battery storage devices, requiring a disassembly process in a recycling facility unique to a battery. With 800,000 metric tons of EV batteries destined to reach the end of their life by 2027, industry experts must find a way to assist recycling efforts now.

Considerations of EV Battery Reuse

Reuse sounds more promising and comprehensive than recycling, so why isn’t it the top priority? Several hurdles prevent it from being accessible.

EV professionals cannot ignore that batteries will degrade over time. They aren’t infinitely reusable, so battery reuse would have to supplement a recycling strategy. Additionally, updates to a dead battery may result in compatibility concerns if placed back into the same vehicle. Professionals must find ways to prevent performance and safety concerns from these inclusions.

Because this is a relatively new field of study, battery reuse standards are few. Reuse will only excel if driver safety is paramount alongside well-informed regulatory advice and corporate accountability structures, like regular auditing. Getting these programs and systems off the ground would be labor-intensive and time-consuming for governments to dock up and companies to implement.

Additionally, there are unforeseen economic fluctuations that could result from battery reuse. How will markets value batteries after several rejuvenations? If battery prices change entirely, how will it impact government EV funding? The expanded potential for batteries must not impede urgency from governing powers because their investments and support are still essential for progress.

Harnessing the Power of Both Recycling and Reuse

Acknowledging recycling and reuse possibilities only expand as more battery variants enter the market is vital. Lithium-ion isn’t the only player anymore — solid-state, sodium-ion and hydrogen-based batteries are entering the scene with ferocity. Finding ways to restore novel tech may sway the conversation on which method is more environmentally and financially productive.

A lucrative, sustainable EV industry needs recycling and reuse simultaneously to flourish. It’s the best chance society has at obtaining the greenest transportation. The ideas from these efforts will seep into other sectors, inspiring more diverse and holistic recycling strategies.

About the Author

Ellie Gabel is the sciences editor at Revolutionized, where she specializes in astronomy, environmental science, and innovative technologies.

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