Scientists warn of a climate emergency where reducing greenhouse gas emissions, improving air quality in urban centers and meeting consumer needs are top priorities. In light of this, we are seeing rapid growth in the adoption of electric vehicles (EVs).
But just like your phone’s rechargeable batteries, electric vehicle batteries won’t last forever. With global electric vehicle sales expected to reach 12 million units by 2025 and over 20 million by 2030, the question is, how are we going to deal with dead EV batteries?
The battery life of an electric vehicle
Electric vehicles use several hundred large lithium-ion (LIB) batteries – think your phone battery – which are grouped together to function as one. Conventional petroleum cars, on the other hand, use lead-acid batteries.
Both are rechargeable, but have different properties in terms of lifespan and efficiency. LIBs can accept a faster rate of current, which means faster charging speeds compared to lead-acid batteries. This is essential for urgent situations where vehicles have high usage and fewer break intervals.
LIBs also weigh less, which increases the range and performance of an electric vehicle. Compared to lead-acid batteries, LIBs weigh 1/3 the weight, 3 times more powerful and have a 3 times longer lifespan, which is estimated at 15-20 years.
After a few thousand charge cycles, the performance of a typical LIB pack can no longer power the vehicle and must be replaced with a new one. But this supposedly depleted battery isn’t just thrown away.
Or at least it shouldn’t, because it’s not exactly “dead”, per se.
It’s not the end yet
Although the LIB pack has lost some of its effectiveness during its lifecycle, it can still hold up to 80% of its potency. Although it is not suitable for continuous use on the road, it can be adapted for other purposes in less demanding uses.
For the technology to be sustainable, it is no longer possible to simply throw away products that are no longer suitable for their original purpose. EV batteries are expensive and loaded with limited raw materials like lithium and cobalt which are harmful to dispose of and pose an explosion hazard when stacked in hot landfills.
Before being discarded, these batteries must first be reused to be reused for a different function, such as charging stations or stationary energy storage to power factories, residential buildings, hospitals, etc.
In fact, Toyota came up with a program in 2018 that connects old EV batteries to solar panels to power convenience stores in Japan.
Meanwhile, Korea’s Ministry of Commerce has partnered with LG Chem to produce portable batteries, AKA power banks, using discarded EV batteries. These are examples of how used LIBs can have a second life. This is also how governments can implement responsible solutions while taking into account growing rates of EV adoption in their country.
Tesla has its own program whereby 60% of LIB components are recycled once they reach end of life. In addition, 10% of these batteries can be reused to build a new battery box for an electric vehicle.
The battery modules are the only material in Tesla’s LIBs that goes into the landfill. But before being thrown away, the pieces are frozen, shredded, and crushed into harmless lint that won’t contaminate the floor. The copper-cobalt is sold to recycling centers and the slurry blocks can be used for painting equipment.
Today, despite these examples, the problem is that very little recycling of EV batteries takes place today, with much still ending up in landfills leaching toxic chemicals that pollute our soil and rivers. In Australia, only 2-3% of LIB is collected and sent abroad for recycling. In the EU and the US, the rates are below 5%.
Most batteries that are recycled go through a process called “melting,” which involves high temperature melting and extraction. And for EVs, the disassembly process requires mechanics trained to do it by hand with specialized tools.
This therefore leads to high labor costs in developed countries, where the income from the extracted materials may not be worth the economic value. Thus, automated disassembly techniques with robotics may become a possible solution.
With Malaysia still lagging behind in the global EV race, we have yet to find solutions to recycle these products. But the question now is whether we will be ready to do it when the time comes?
Maybe taking a look at how we’re dealing with it on a small scale in the form of phone batteries could give us some idea.
We are simply a collection site
Malaysia’s e-waste recycling rate looks a bit more optimistic at 25%, according to the Department of the Environment (DOE) in 2020. However, the actual number of recycled LIBs itself is inconclusive.
ERTH founder Mohamed Tarek El-Fatatry told Vulcan Post that Malaysia unfortunately does not have such a facility to break down electronic waste at the moment.
For example, in 2019, the e-waste recycling center donated used LIBs from phones to Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore. They were used as test materials for the institution’s new device that could shred batteries and extract cobalt and lithium.
“They were able to recover up to 90% of the materials from expired batteries and reuse them in new ones,” he explained.
Mohamed Tarek added that some local companies collect LIBs for export to Korea. But during the pandemic, this activity was stopped. “Nowadays we donate our old LIBs to hobbyists who are trying to make solar storage systems from old batteries,” he said.
While Malaysia may just be a simple e-waste collector at the moment, it presents opportunities for local startups to spring up in the battery lifecycle management space. In addition, electric vehicle manufacturers themselves might be looking for ways to recycle their own batteries, like Tesla did.
And since the authorities are still finalizing the policies and infrastructure to accommodate electric vehicles, it would be worthwhile to define appropriate plans on how to dispose of batteries in 15 years as well.
- You can read more articles we’ve written on electric vehicles here.
Featured Image Credit: Qnovo / ChargeNow
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