Here’s how we can stop a mountain of electric car batteries piling up


More than a million electric cars were bought globally in the first half of this year, the same number sold across the whole of 2017. In the UK, sales of pure electric cars were up 151 per cent last month. Such signs of rapid growth are good news for air quality and climate change, but research out today warns of a potential sting in the tail. There is no such thing as an electric car battery waste mountain, yet. However, the number of cars set to be sold globally this year could one day lead to more than 500,000 tonnes of battery waste, five times that of all the portable batteries recycled in the European Union annually. Those lithium-ion car batteries will need to be recycled or pose an environmental and safety risk, according to Laura Driscoll at the University of Birmingham, UK, and her colleagues. Whether that translates into a challenge or opportunity depends on what carmakers and governments do next. “It’s a challenge because most current generation batteries aren’t designed for recycling,” says Driscoll. For example, Tesla’s high-end cars use packs of cylindrical battery cells, which in some cases are bonded into a battery module, making them hard to remove and recycle – though the company says it is working to improve this. Nissan’s Leaf model, by contrast, uses a pouch of rectangular cells which are easier to open and separate for recycling. There is no standardisation among car makers on battery packs, and little sign of any coming soon. “If the battery packs were more of a standard design, it would make the process at end-of-life much easier,” says Driscoll. Most electric car batteries should have a lifetime of around 15 to 20 years. While their first decade will probably be in a car, some have already gone on to a second life as Tesla Powerwall-style batteries in homes, and more will follow. Still, eventually they will need to be recycled. Although dumping electric car batteries in landfill, where they can leach toxic materials, is illegal, there is a question mark over whether recycling facilities can scale up fast enough. “In Europe there are 18 companies looking at lithium-ion recycling, but they all recycle different material, so capacity is definitely an issue,” says Gloria Esposito of the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership. Driscoll says it would be “environmentally disastrous” if there isn’t a strategy for dealing with the batteries. What’s more, stockpiling old batteries poses fire risks. Another concern is batteries being exported to a country like India for a legitimate second use, such as powering a microgrid, but where no recycling facilities exist when they are spent. “That could be a growing time bomb, especially if things take off quickly,” says Jonathan Radcliffe at the University of Birmingham, who wasn’t involved in the research. As well as the environmental benefits of mining fewer raw materials, recycling would bring an economic opportunity for reclaiming metals from batteries, says Driscoll. Cobalt, nickel and manganese are three of the most valuable to recover from them. The success of recycling will depend partly on automation, as robots can do the job cheaper, faster and safer than humans, say Driscoll and colleagues. Which brings us back to carmakers: if they made battery packs in a more standardised way, or used something a machine could read, such as a QR code, that would aid automation. “[Carmakers] are a bit conflicted because they want a competitive advantage, to make the batteries as cheap and high-performance as they can. That might not always align with making them in a certain set of standards,” says Radcliffe. That is why regulation will be key to manufacturers’ decisions and, in turn, how easily we can tackle that future battery waste mountain.

New Scientist, 6 November 2019