Sam Haig, Battery Recycling Business Manager at R S Bruce Metals & Machinery Ltd informs us of how vehicle dismantlers will be seeing more EV ELVs entering their yards in the not too distant future and what needs to be looked at to ensure they are handled in the correct and safest way.
It is no secret that electric vehicles are on the rise; with unit sales and market share increasing year-on-year, and calls from all corners to restrict or ban sales of petrol and diesel cars from as soon as 2030. Already, it is estimated that over 200,000 plug-in vehicles have been sold in the UK in the last six years alone.
As the saying goes “what goes up must come down”, or rather, what is sold must eventually be recycled – and electric vehicles are no exception. Already, ATFs are receiving small numbers of these vehicles, ranging from new cars that have reached end of life prematurely to much older ‘true’ end of life vehicles.
The emergence of these vehicles in the ELV stream presents ATFs with both opportunities, and challenges; chief of these surrounding what to do with the high-voltage battery packs within them.
The primary question is how the packs should be removed; each vehicle has its own design and the method of removing the battery pack differs accordingly. This is not simply a question of the right technique and tools; staff need to be trained appropriately and must be aware of the hazards that batteries pose. By registering with the International Dismantling Information System (IDIS), a free-to-use online tool that contains OEM-provided information on ELV dismantling, ATFs can quickly find the recommended way to remove batteries from vehicles efficiently and safely.
The most obvious of these is the high voltage of the packs – up to 600 V in some cases. There is a real risk of a fatal accident if batteries are not handled with care, and the risks are even greater with end of life batteries that may have suffered any amount of damage through their life.
Another well-documented risk is fire; lithium-ion batteries have been held responsible for many fires across the waste sector over the last few years. Batteries from electric vehicles are robust and designed to withstand abuse in life, but there is still the chance that a battery may be damaged to the point where it may self-ignite. Simple things such as inspecting vehicles carefully before beginning dismantling, ensuring batteries are not dropped or subject to impacts, and are stored in areas where they will not be damaged by other operations on site, are all essential.
Once the pack is out, there is the question of what to do with it. Although there has been much noise made about the potential for reusing end of first life battery packs in alternative applications, such as stationary storage, the future of this market is still unclear, and there are doubts about whether second life batteries can truly compete with new ones in the long term.
A recent report by McKinsey estimates that the supply of second life batteries will soon outstrip demand for stationary storage, and the decrease in the price of new batteries could drive the cost advantage of second life batteries to almost a third of what it is currently. In this market, it is likely that only the ‘best of the best’ will be commercially attractive for reuse. Others may be good for remanufacturing, or repurposing into new packs. However, this will still leave many batteries requiring an effective recycling route.
At present, lithium-ion battery recycling is limited to a small number of facilities, all based in mainland Europe. Transporting batteries to these facilities from the UK is challenging, risky, and costly. As volumes grow, a national solution is required.
R S Bruce, a precious metal recovery company based in Sheffield, is establishing a facility in the UK for the treatment and recycling of lithium-ion batteries. Due to be established in mid-2020, this will use novel processing techniques to provide an efficient, sustainable, and commercially attractive end of life route for batteries. The new facility will address both the existing volumes of portable cells from, for example, laptops and mobile phones, while meeting the growing need for a solution for batteries from end of life vehicles and other applications.
Underpinning all of the above is the question of cost and value. Training staff, maintaining competence, and providing suitable equipment all comes at a price. In some circumstances, there is value to be found in reuse of electric vehicle batteries. But for those that require recycling, there will be an associated cost. By working together, ATFs, OEMs, compliance schemes, and battery recyclers can create an efficient network for treating end of life batteries.
The growing volume of electric vehicles presents opportunities and challenges to the end of life vehicle sector. Collaboration across all parties is necessary to address these challenges and seize the opportunities.