According to foreign media reports, electrified transportation is one of the keys to solving the looming climate crisis. There are more electric cars on the roads, fewer fuel-intensive cars, less fossil fuel burning by drivers and less greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere. But as electric cars become more popular, they also pose another environmental challenge: what to do with their batteries once they leave the road.
According to a new paper published today in Nature, these batteries are beginning to pile up as a problem. People will have to recycle many batteries, but getting useful materials from lithium-ion batteries recovered from electric vehicles is still cumbersome and dangerous. Fortunately, that doesn’t mean there’s no hope. The authors of the paper say institutional changes — such as recycling when designing batteries and automatic removal using robots — could reshape battery recycling. These improvements, in turn, can make electric vehicles more environmentally friendly by using old batteries to provide the materials needed to make new batteries.
In 2017, more than 1 million electric vehicles were sold worldwide. The study’s authors estimate that these cars alone could end up producing 250,000 tons of discarded battery packs. If they are eventually thrown into landfill, they run the risk of being called a “hot escape,” which is essentially a chemical reaction in a battery that can cause the battery to heat up and possibly burn or explode.
But landfill explosions aren’t the only reason to avoid discarding old batteries. In fact, they are useful for a long time after they are taken out of the car. Just like people use their phones, they may choose to replace the battery or buy a new phone over time because of problems with the battery not being able to charge for long periods of time. It is understood that when the new battery is in use, up to 80% of the electricity can be maintained and discharged, which leads to some clever solutions for how to deal with the first electric vehicle batteries on the market. This year, Toyota unveiled a plan to pair batteries from old electric cars with solar panels and then power 7-Eleven convenience stores in Japan. Since these batteries can make money, finding secondary uses has outstripped recycling efforts.
“If you make it profitable, people will do it,” said Linda Gaines, a systems analyst at Argonne National Laboratory, co-author of the study. Now, however, there is really no clear sign that this is a profitable business because there is no system and no infrastructure to recycle batteries for electric vehicles. “
In response, Gaines and his co-authors see an emerging opportunity to use old battery materials to meet the demand for new car batteries. Lithium batteries in electric vehicles are made from cobalt, a mineral mined mainly in Congo. But growing demand for cobalt in the region has led to allegations that cobalt mining causes child labour and other social and environmental problems. As a result, Gavin Harper, a researcher from the University of Birmingham and lead author of the study, believes that in some cases it makes more sense to recycle batteries and reuse valuable materials into new manufacturing than to reuse them. “Is it better to remove cobalt from the battery and make it into a new battery at an early stage?” He asked.
But in order to recycle batteries to the scale needed in the growing electric car market, the industry will have to address some key challenges: first, the current batteries are not designed for ease of removal, meaning that future battery designs would ideally be of the same standard and easy to disassemble; This will not only address the dangers faced by human workers in this process and speed up.
The authors plan to begin experimenting with their proposed solution, though it will still be years before robots can dismantle the battery’s assembly line.