What Happens to Used EV Batteries?

Recycling used EV batteries is cumbersome and costly.

November 05, 2021

Inside of an Electric Car

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—Like other sectors of the economy, supply-chain issues on products and resources are a major issue for consumers, manufacturers, retailers and other businesses. And the same is true for the electric vehicle (EV) industry. The batteries in EVs are far different than the small batteries in gas-powered vehicles, and the recycling or disposing of old EV batteries is a hurdle the industry will need to scale, reports Wired.

According to the International Energy Agency, the number of EVs will be between 148 million and 230 million worldwide, or 12% of the global automotive fleet. The challenge lies in when those batteries come off the road. EVs are charged by lithium, cobalt and battery-grade nickel, and lithium-ion batteries are toxic and can catch fire and spread quickly—a danger that runs especially high when they are stored together.

With limited reserves and suppliers, battery manufacturers have been researching ways to reduce the amount of minerals used to manufacture the batteries, but each alternative comes with a technical downside or creates new supply challenges with new resources. Each mineral plays an important role regarding the performance of the battery. Nickel boosts a battery’s energy density and range. Cobalt extends a battery’s lifespan and manganese helps a battery operate safer at higher temperatures. All work together to help deliver a long lifespan and range and high performance.

In the U.S. alone, the amount of lithium, cobalt and battery-grade nickel needed to electrify every light-duty vehicle on the road surpasses the total amount of these resources mined globally in 2019, according to a report on supply-chain vulnerabilities. In addition, the U.S. does not have the geologic reserves needed to meet its future demand for these minerals and metals.

It’s difficult and expensive to extract the minerals out of the EV batteries to recycle them, involving shredding batteries, then breaking them down further with heat or chemicals at dedicated facilities, according to Wired. Moreover, it’s costly to transport the battery to the recycling facility, with transportation being about 40% of the overall cost of recycling because the EV battery packs are so large they need to be shipped by truck in specially designed cases, often across long distances.

Many times, the cost of recycling the battery exceeds sourcing a brand-new battery. Currently, the only battery material that can be recycled profitably is cobalt, because it’s just that rare and expensive.

As a result of both the domestic challenges and international challenges in the supply chain, U.S. President Joe Biden has created the Federal Consortium for Advanced Batteries, a cross-agency group headed by the U.S. Department of Energy. The consortium is identifying the supply and technical challenges in batteries used for EVs and is developing potential solutions to overcome those challenges.

In addition, it has created a National Blueprint for Lithium Batteries to help guide the development of a domestic battery industry. Some issues being looked at include reducing the use of nickel and cobalt from lithium batteries, looking at responsible sourcing for those minerals and if they can be safely and securely mined and developed, research for recycling batteries and a wide range of other issues.

Inside Washington’s Climate Corner column took a look at the global supply-chain issues relating to batteries and minerals in the September 2021 issue of NACS Magazine.