By Maura Keller

Open any news website and you’d be hard pressed not to find information on the growth of the electric vehicle marketplace. With that growth, recyclers’ attention is increasingly focused on the eventual influx of the lithium-ion batteries used within these vehicles, including new recycling facilities, legislative issues and challenges that come with this new technology.

According to the International Energy Agency, in 2020, the sales of electric and hybrid vehicles reached 3 million vehicles in major markets including North America, China and Europe, equating to 4.6 percent of total sales. In Europe, the EV market share reached 10 percent of sales. And as more and more automotive manufacturers are moving to eliminate the internal combustion engine and embrace EV technology, a report by BloombergNEF stated that auto manufacturers are predicting more than 40 million electric vehicle sales by 2040. With that comes a growing focus on EV battery recycling.

According to Steve Christensen, executive director of Responsible Battery Coalition (RBC), a coalition of companies, academics and organizations committed to the responsible management of the batteries, several states, including Nevada, have led the way in welcoming and supporting new recycling facilities. While the American Battery Technology Company raised $39.1 million for a new Nevada facility, Li-Cycle received a $100 million investment from Koch Strategic Platforms for new EV battery recycling centers in North America. Battery Resourcers recently opened North America’s largest lithium-ion battery recycling mega center in Georgia.

As states are welcoming new EV battery recycling facilities, at the federal level, an infrastructure law will allocate almost $7 billion for strengthening the battery supply chain in the U.S., including recycling battery materials. In 2020 and 2021, a Senate bill for lithium-ion recycling was proposed and another bill funding infrastructure investment was passed by Congress in 2021. While the law does not mandate electric vehicle battery recycling, it provides $60 million for research into battery recycling (including researching the reuse of electric vehicle batteries) and it allocates $50 million for local governments and $15 million to retailers to fund battery recycling programs.

“The legislative proposals that we are monitoring include provisions such as critical mineral sourcing and the processing and use of recycled content in new batteries,” Christensen said.

In addition, as Lea Malloy, head of EV Battery Solutions at Cox Automotive Mobility explained, there currently is significant money flowing to EV battery recycling start-ups, underscoring the environmental necessity of such technologies, as well as the consumer and corporate expectations around lifecycle management.

Malloy said legislators shouldn’t focus on domestic EV battery recycling as means to an end, but instead, strategically manage the commodities that are vital to pushing NA-ion battery production forward by keeping cobalt and nickel within the existing supply chain.

“We would also advise for cohesive federal standards around EV battery recycling and environmental permitting,” Malloy said. “Unfortunately, we’re seeing the interpretation and extension of policies developed to support other industries, like lead acid batteries, complicating decisions for EV batteries.”

Challenges Aplenty

Ryan Melsert is the chief executive officer of American Battery Technology Company, which has built a clean technology platform used to provide a key source of domestically manufactured, critical and strategic battery metals to help meet the demand from the electric vehicle, electrical grid storage, and consumer electronics industries.

Melsert said it is crucial to recover precious metals, like the critical materials that fuel electric vehicles and consumer electronic batteries, for many reasons. Most importantly, recovery through recycling allows for a more circular economy for those metals, and allows them to have a perpetual, circular life cycle. “Recycling also keeps the products made up of such materials out of landfills, where they can pose a significant risk to the environment,” Melsert said.

There are various methods used to recover metals through recycling. As Melsert explained, some high heat or pyrometallurgical methods are less favorable for the environment, as they can create harmful air emissions and they don’t recover all of the available metals. And some conventional hydrometallurgical methods use large amounts of acids and other chemicals.

“We favor a phased mechanical and targeted hydrometallurgical process. Our closed loop process allows us to recover high purity lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese, aluminum, copper, and plastic that can be redeployed into the battery metals and commodity supply chains,” Melsert said. “It is economically and environmentally sustainable while providing a truly circular economy for these materials.”

That said, the EV recycling process is not without its set of challenges. Malloy said the largest concern surrounding EV battery recycling and handling is the costs associated with the safe handling of packs on the road while in transport, due to U.S. Department of Transportation restrictions.

“The packs are heavy, and the bulk dunnage is sparse. It’s difficult to fill a load with 40,000 pounds of batteries and ensure it makes it to the destination without damage,” Malloy said. Additionally, the industry faces challenges in access to battery health data to make the proper assessments about end-of-life status.

According to Christensen, the lack of a truly circular economy is another issue facing the electric vehicle (EV) battery recycling industry.

“With a circular economy, you have more stability and predictability in your business allowing for better long term planning,” Christensen said. “This results in higher recycling rates, cost savings across the value chain and less pressure on sourcing new materials. Ultimately, proper planning for a circular economy lowers the overall emissions associated with the batteries.”

As Christensen explained, recyclability relies significantly on the value of the materials in the battery and the energy, time and cost needed to recover those materials. As such, RBC has found through the organization’s own work with the ReCell Center at Argonne National Laboratory that the business case for recycling an EV battery becomes weaker as the materials become less desirable or more costly to extract.

“Our research shows that there is a balance that needs to be struck between these factors in order to create a sustainable business model for recycling every battery,” Christensen said. “This is where collaboration with battery manufacturers, EV OEMs and recyclers is critical. Together these different actors in the battery’s lifecycle can ensure it is properly managed.”

Indeed, Melsert said innovation and improvements in the manufacturing of lithium-ion batteries will ultimately pave the way for more efficient recycling processes to recover the critical materials from those batteries when they reach their initial end of service.

“Our de-manufacturing recycling process utilizes a first-principles approach to comprehensively and sustainably target contaminants, remove impurities, recover and purify metals to purify to battery grade specifications,” Melsert said. “In essence, with our recycling process, there is no ‘end of life’ for batteries, but rather a circular and perpetual life cycle.”

Staying Informed

Christensen advised recyclers to keep an eye on emerging technologies that lower the emissions associated with recycling EV batteries. “Some estimates say that more than 11 million metric tons of lithium-ion batteries will reach the end of their service life by 2030. If these batteries are all recycled using the zero-emissions technologies pioneered by RBC members, it will result in a massive reduction in greenhouse gas emissions,” Christensen said.

Information about how a battery was manufactured, and its component “ingredients,” will be key for responsible end-of-life management. Christensen said the more a recycler knows about a battery, the more efficiently it can be managed at the end of its life. RBC is working with its partners at the Global Battery Alliance in creating what is called the Battery Passport.

“This will be easily accessible, readable information that is collected and follows the battery throughout its life,” Christensen said. “At the end of the battery’s life, the recycler will have all the necessary information to make the best decisions on how to manage the battery.”

The team at Cox Automotive Mobility believes EVs are the future to drive a safer and more environmentally friendly mode of transportation.

“That said, we are solving one of the biggest environmental challenges of our time, and we do expect to experience peaks and valleys along the course,” Malloy said. “Without a doubt, EV battery recycling is an environmental and economic necessity, and the industry is driving innovation. However, the industry will need the flexibility and agility to pivot as we build out the EV battery service lifecycle together.”