A research project (ReLiB) focusing on recycling and reuse of Li-ion batteries is in progress at the Cardiff University Business School. Dr Jean-Paul Skeete, Research Associate, discusses the benefits which can be achieved environmentally and economically.
About the ReLib project
At the Cardiff University Business School, we are currently involved in a large, multi-university research project focused on the reuse and recycling of automotive Lithium-ion batteries (the ReLiB project). Part of our research involves projecting new car registrations up until 2025 because it gives us some idea about the volumes of ‘pure electric’ or Battery Electric Vehicles (EVs) in the UK that will enter an ‘end-of-life state’ each year after 2018. The volumes of electric vehicles retiring (and entering ATFs) each year is expected to increase given the increasing annual sales of EVs in the UK.
Thus, it is important that we consider the reuse or remanufacture of battery materials, as well as recycling if we are to achieve the maximum environmental (and economic) benefits of this new technology. The eventual safe disposal of end-of-life automotive Lithium-ion batteries (let’s call them eLIBs) is equally important as there are several environmental health and safety concerns regarding battery waste.
Organic electrolytes in eLIBs present toxicity and flammability risks, because in storage or landfill conditions, eLIBs may explode or catch fire, and if the electrolyte is exposed to water, very dangerous hydrogen fluoride formation may occur. Additionally, cobalt or lithium concentrations in the surface and underground water may rise above safe environmental levels in locations where eLIBs are disposed. eLIBs in landfills can also introduce unwanted elements such as copper, nickel, graphite and carbon black into the environment.
In the long-term, the uncertainty of future EV battery chemical compositions remains the biggest challenge to eLIB recycling. Currently, there is no efficient or sustainable method of recycling mixed eLIB feedstock, and thus, there is an urgent need for more powerful, industrialised methods for materials recovery. Each EV battery is different, which in turn makes recycling much more complicated and expensive compared to the generic 12-volt Lead-acid battery recycling.
Another major issue that is frustrating the recycling and recovery of eLIBs is the proper sorting and identification of the battery’s chemistry. Although sorting machines have begun appearing on the market in the hopes of reducing sorting and identification times, the need for a universal mixed-waste processing technology that can account for differences in eLIB chemistries and form factors remains an urgent priority.
The road ahead
Our research shows that EV batteries will increasingly present themselves as a future waste management challenge due to high volumes, complexity and different chemistries. Thus, multiple waste management strategies are needed:
- Reuse pathways for healthy eLIBs packs, modules or cells.
- Recycling regimes capable of recovering high-value materials from mixed eLIB feedstock.
- Updated environmental regulations that drive the efficient collection and sorting of eLIBs, and the maximum recovery of all recyclable materials, despite low initial eLIB volumes and uncertainty regarding the full costs recycling.
- Safe disposal routes for materials with negligible secondary value or non-existent means of recovery.
Traceability of EV batteries throughout their lifecycle has been flagged by industry stakeholders as a feature that could have a significant impact on how eLIB waste flows are managed in the future. The current absence of reporting mechanisms or certification schemes is causing a lack of traceability across the battery lifecycle, resulting in materials leakage and economic/value loss. The implementation of battery identification e.g. a Quick Response (QR) code or via blockchain technologies could be crucial to the future of eLIB waste management in the UK.
Industry stakeholders suggest that a dominant (or standard) EV battery design (chemistry and/or form factor) will improve the recyclability of the waste stream. Currently, smartphones, laptops and tablets make it difficult or impossible to remove the battery without proprietary tools. Easily removable batteries as a standard and banning the use of soldering and glue in batteries will certainly affect ATFs in the disassembly and material recovery process.
If we assume that EVs in the UK (optimistically) account for 8% of total new car registrations in 2025, then we estimate that approximately 75,000 EV battery packs or 28,000 metric tons of lithium-ion batteries will be eligible for end-of-life processing in the UK that same year. It is worth repeating two key lessons learned from automotive Lead-acid battery recycling: 1. Sustainability solutions require sustainable business models and 2. Despite favourable economics, regulations are likely necessary to develop and maintain a viable EV battery end-of-life infrastructure.
To find out more about the project visit: www.relib.org.uk
To read Dr Jean-Paul Skeet’s Bio go to www.cardiff.ac.uk