Current owners, prospective buyers, policymakers, and many experts in the automotive industry are concerned about how electric vehicles (EVs) and their batteries will be disposed of as sales of EVs continue to rise. This is a question that has been at the forefront of their minds for quite some time.

EVs are a newer technology, and their batteries necessitate a different end-of-life treatment than petrol and diesel vehicles. Fortunately, research and development into recycling lithium-ion batteries have been ongoing for many years. India has an expanding repurposing and recycling infrastructure for these components. Many businesses are already recycling batteries; these include recycling companies such as Gravita India Ltd., Attero Recycling, Ziptrax Cleantech, and ACE Green Recycling Inc.

After its first life in a car and before it is recycled, a battery can be used again, fixed up, or put to another use.

Reused and repurposed first, then recycled

If the battery is not damaged while being used in an EV, such as in a car accident, these batteries have an estimated 80% of the original rated capacity. This means that if the battery was originally designed to hold 100 kWh, it can now hold up to 80 kWh. The batteries can be broken down to salvage smaller components for reuse and refurbishment, or they can be repurposed and used in a less demanding application, such as stationary storage, to make use of the remaining capacity.

Companies in USA such as RePurpose Energy and B2U Storage Solutions, are repurposing these batteries for stationary storage to support renewable energy generation. They combine multiple EV batteries, as well as battery monitoring and cooling technology, to create a larger battery the size of a shipping container. The battery stores solar electricity generated during the day and supplies electricity during peak evening demand. As the grid cleans up, more grid storage is required to support the generation variability of renewable sources. These used batteries are an excellent way to both extend the life of a previously manufactured product and contribute to the renewable energy transition. The batteries are then ready to be recycled after their second life.

What makes a vehicle battery valuable?

Lithium-ion batteries contain numerous valuable materials that should be recovered and kept away from landfills.

The battery is disassembled and shredded prior to recycling using large machinery, which breaks the battery into small pieces. After shredding, the materials are sifted and separated based on size. This categorizes them into three groups: plastics, ferrous materials, and non-ferrous materials (also called black mass). The critical materials, cobalt, lithium, nickel, and manganese, are contained in the black mass and can be recovered individually using a hydrometallurgical process.

The process of hydrometallurgical recycling begins with leaching to produce a solvent containing the critical materials. Solvent extraction, precipitation, and purification are then used to recover the individual materials. In the metals industry, hydrometallurgy is well known because a similar process is also used to extract materials from ore after it has been mined. Many lithium-ion recycling companies in the United States use a variation of this process and report a material recovery rate of 95–98%.

Can we make new batteries out of recycled materials?

Yes! Once the materials have been recovered, they can be processed and used to make new lithium-ion batteries. This is a better option than using virgin ore because it reduces the amount of mining required to produce EVs.

According to recent research, recycled materials could supply 45–52% of the cobalt, 22–27% of lithium, and 40–46% of the nickel used in the US light- and heavy-duty vehicle fleets by 2050. Efforts are underway across the United States to increase EV sales. Places like California expect to have 100% of all car sales be electric by 2035; therefore, the ability to recycle batteries and reuse the metal within them is a critical step in the transition to a cleaner transportation system.

Recycling is critical to making EVs more environmentally friendly.

EV batteries currently account for roughly half of the lithium-ion batteries recycled (by mass), which also includes consumer electronics and waste from battery manufacturing. With 3.8 million EVs on the road in North America today and sales increasing year over year, the number of EVs retiring in the coming years will rise as they are totaled or age out of the fleet.

This increase will result in a much higher percentage of vehicle batteries being recycled; retirements are expected to be 6–7 times higher in 2025 than in 2020, and 20–40 times higher in 2030. Companies that recycle these batteries are expanding their capacity to prepare for the upcoming wave.

By collaborating with automakers, these recycling companies are securing a battery supply. For example, major automakers are collaborating with Redwood Materials, a Nevada-based recycling company. Redwood not only recycles, but will soon close the material loop by producing battery components from recovered materials.

Redwood Materials has also implemented a recycling program in order to learn more about the location of retired and uncollected batteries as well as how to reduce the costs of transporting these batteries to the recycling facility. Transportation from their retirement location to the recycling plant is expensive, accounting for 50–60% of the recycling costs. These costs are incurred as a result of the special packaging and requirements required for shipping retired batteries, as well as their large size and weight. However, transportation costs could be reduced if a more efficient collection system is developed.

Researchers have been modelling potential reverse logistics networks, and Redwood Materials is now conducting its own research using a learning-by-doing approach. Their new recycling program includes free pick-up and recycling of any retired lithium-ion battery in California. They are also collaborating with dealerships and battery dismantlers to collect as many batteries as possible.

Battery end-of-life management is critical for ensuring that batteries are disposed of safely and that materials are recovered and reused in battery manufacturing. Many people are working to make sure that EV batteries are reused, repurposed, and recycled. This is in addition to the work that is being done to speed up the adoption of EVs and make them the permanent replacement for petrol and diesel vehicles.

India is also treading the path of the USA. As a result, India’s electric vehicle industry has much to learn and adapt from the United States. Indian battery recycling companies, with the help of the government, should learn from US firms like Redwood Materials.