Thursday, January 21, 2021

"Electric Cars’ Looming Recycling Problem"

From Undark, January 21:

Financial incentives to recycle spent electric vehicle batteries are eroding. That could spell environmental disaster.

In September, Tesla announced that it would be phasing out the use of cobalt in its batteries, in an effort to produce a $25,000 electric vehicle within three years. If successful, this bold move will be an industry game changer, making electric vehicles competitive with conventional counterparts. But the announcement also underscores one of the fundamental challenges that will complicate the transition to electric vehicles. Without cobalt, there may be little financial incentive to recycle the massive batteries used to power the cars — and that could lead to an environmental disaster.

The switch to electric vehicles has been promoted as a major, necessary step to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to stave off the worst effects of a changing climate. The switch would also significantly reduce health risks associated with vehicle emissions. Every major auto manufacturer now has at least one electric vehicle in production, and some — including Daimler, Volkswagen, and General Motors — have pledged to phase out the production of gas and diesel engines entirely. More than a dozen countries, including many in Europe, have said they plan to ban sales of gasoline and diesel cars by 2040 or sooner. California also just announced a plan to phase out gas and diesel cars by 2035.

But electric cars have their own dirty little secret: Every electric vehicle, and most hybrid vehicles, rely on large lithium-ion batteries weighing hundreds of pounds. One of the largest, the battery for the Mercedes-Benz EQC, comes in at 1,400 pounds. Typically made with cobalt, nickel, and manganese, among other components, these batteries cost thousands of dollars and come with an environmental burden: They require ingredients sourced from polluting mines and smelters around the world, and they can ultimately contaminate soil and water supplies if improperly disposed.

In the rush to embrace this technology, auto companies are adopting the same pretense that has been embraced by the plastics industry: They are claiming that used batteries will be recycled. However, the truth is being swept under the rug. None of the lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles are recyclable in the same sense that paper, glass, and lead car batteries are. Although efforts to improve recycling methods are underway, generally only around half the materials in these batteries is currently extracted and repurposed. And without the most valuable ingredients, there will be little economic incentive to invest in recycling technologies. The result, if nothing is done to tip the scales, could be a massive health and environmental crisis.

Despite ongoing research into recycling technology, this situation is unlikely to resolve itself. Lithium-ion battery makers have yet to develop the technology that can economically extract components in a form that can be used to make new lithium-ion batteries. Rather, the batteries are typically processed to remove the cobalt and a few other expensive metals, with much of the remainder released as air emissions or used as filler in concrete or other construction products. This is one reason why less than 5 percent of lithium-ion batteries are currently recycled.... 


"EU batteries regulation aims to reduce reliance on China imports"
"Renault batteries find ‘megawatt-scale’ 2nd life use in Belgium"
This is not the future, Umicore is also working on that, but it is a way to extract some value from what is essentially toxic waste....
UPDATED—"Automakers Need to Start Worrying About the Batteries Lurking in Older Electric Vehicles" (plus some M&A speculation from Markets Live)