In November 2019, the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) held the first meeting of its newly formed Lithium-ion Car Battery Recycling Advisory Group. Formed in response to a 2018 bill, the cross-sector group will advise the California Legislature on policies to support recycling of lithium-ion batteries, the dominant battery technology supporting electric vehicles (EVs) today. It is an important area of focus. While recycling end-of-life EV batteries presents both opportunities and challenges, sourcing critical materials for future applications holds significant potential for the domestic EV supply chain and ultimately U.S. energy security.
Most analysts and industry experts agree that almost all of America’s cars and trucks will eventually make the switch from gasoline to electricity.
Most analysts and industry experts agree that almost all of America’s cars and trucks will eventually make the switch from gasoline to electricity, with benefits for the climate and our energy security. Automakers are making large investments in EVs with expectations of significant market growth in the coming years. This means fewer greenhouse gas emissions and less demand for oil, much of it imported, in favor of charging with domestically produced—and increasingly clean—electricity.
However, these advances will create a new challenge. The MIT Energy Initiative projects that by 2030, the EV market will generate more than 400 GWh of spent lithium-ion batteries each year. While many batteries could initially enter second-use applications, eventually they will all degrade beyond usability and require disposal. This is where recycling can play a role.
Sending used EV batteries to landfills is both potentially unsafe and unwise. Besides possible fire hazards (lithium-ion batteries can ignite when overheated or damaged), landfilled batteries could leach lithium or other metals into the soil or groundwater supplies. Additionally, landfill disposal would also ignore a compelling opportunity to secure key inputs for EV battery manufacturing from spent batteries themselves. The United States Department of Energy estimates that generating one ton of battery-grade cobalt requires an order of magnitude more ore than it does material from spent batteries. The same is true for lithium. If these metals can be recovered more economically than from the natural environment, recycling promises to be both less resource-intensive and less expensive as a source of raw inputs for battery manufacturing.
By 2030, recycled material could provide as much as one-third of the United States’ battery cathode material needs.
While a powerful economic case exists for EV battery recycling the energy security implications are potentially profound. Today, much of the EV battery supply chain runs through foreign countries. As SAFE’s Alex Adams has noted previously here in The Fuse, the United States depends on imports for 59 percent of its nickel, 92 percent of its lithium, and 100 percent of its cobalt and graphite. Globally, lithium-ion battery production is heavily concentrated in China. Recycling spent EV batteries in the United States would thus create a much-needed domestic source of raw materials for EV battery manufacturing, supporting supply chain stability and domestic battery production for the American EV industry. By 2030, recycled material could provide as much as one-third of the United States’ battery cathode material needs.
To realize these benefits, government and the full cross-section of affected industry—including battery manufacturers, automakers, mining interests, and others—must work together to surmount several obstacles. Perhaps chief among these are the technical barriers to an industrialized recycling operation. For one thing, to date manufacturers have not kept future disassembly in mind when producing lithium-ion batteries, and they vary in size and shape across manufacturers. They also vary in their material make-up: both nickel manganese cobalt (NMC) and nickel cobalt aluminum cathodes are common, and in the future new chemistries might even take their place. Even among NMC cathodes, the recipe—that is, the proportion of each component in the cathode—can differ. To add yet more complication, the finished battery packs used in EVs include ancillary sensors and circuitry that would all require removal. Potential recyclers thus face the need to sort, separate, and dismantle these complex devices in order to extract the valuable materials inside. Standardization will be key to achieving scale and economy. The new ReCell Center at Argonne National Lab might point the way forward. Its research into recycling processes and battery design aim to improve material recovery and could guide new industry standards.
With potentially millions of EVs on the road across the United States in the coming decades, an entity will need to collect large volumes of end-of-life batteries and transport them to centralized repurposing and recycling facilities.
Logistical and regulatory concerns could also hamper recycling efforts. With potentially millions of EVs on the road across the United States in the coming decades, an entity will need to collect large volumes of end-of-life batteries and transport them to centralized repurposing and recycling facilities. From the vantage point of today, it is unclear who might meet this need given the costs and logistical complexity of collecting and carefully shipping what will amount to tens of thousands of tons of lithium-ion batteries. To support market development, regulators will likely need to start by setting targets for reuse and recycling of EV batteries, define clear responsibilities for the various parties in the battery value chain, and reexamine U.S. waste rules and chains of ownership for batteries after removal from vehicles.
Lithium-ion batteries are critical for achieving a more secure, independent, and sustainable transportation and energy future. In creating a domestic source of raw materials, helping to cut costs, and creating a new market out of responsible disposal, recycling them can compound these benefits. With stakeholder collaborations like California’s new advisory group, we are seeing states and industry take the right first steps to make the most of this win-win opportunity.