International Energy Agency’s (IEA) updated ten-year forecast of the electric vehicle (EV) market covers the afterlife of EV batteries and how it is estimated the number of these batteries will be equivalent to current annual battery production.
According to the recent International Energy Agency (IEA) Global EV Outlook 2020 report, it states that it is estimated that 100-120 GWh of electric vehicle batteries will be retired by 2030, which is a volume roughly equivalent to current annual battery production. Without effective measures to address such volumes, this can become a significant environmental liability. Spent batteries can be channelled to second-use or recycling with the aid of policies that help to steer these markets towards sustainable end-of-life practices.
Battery reuse in second-life, stationary storage applications for services to electricity network operators, electric utilities, and commercial or residential customers can extend the lifetime of batteries that are no longer suited for automotive applications. Extending the useful life of automotive batteries can contribute to displacing the environmental impacts, emissions and costs of manufacturing new batteries for the provision of the same services.
However, there is little experience to date from this nascent market. Challenges in implementing second-life applications for automotive batteries reside primarily in competition with the decreasing cost of new battery manufacturing and a potentially long and technical refurbishing process that requires efficient technical information transfer between the stakeholders along the value chain. An industry is starting to emerge, made up of stakeholders from original equipment manufacturers, utilities and specialised start-ups.
As volumes of end-of-life electric vehicle batteries increase, the development of an effective recycling industry will be key to the sustainability of Li-ion batteries. By recovering critical materials, a robust recycling system would reduce demand for raw materials, greenhouse gas emissions and negative local impacts from mining and refining.
Furthermore, domestic recycling enables countries to reduce their reliance on imports of critical materials. So far, economic viability and market incentives for recycling have been limited because of generally low raw material prices and small volumes of spent electric vehicle batteries to date.
However, as the growing market for electric vehicles puts further pressure on primary resources, raw material prices could increase and/or prices may become more volatile. Thus, materials recovered through recycling would become more competitive. The economic and strategic value of essential inputs, such as lithium and cobalt, may incentivise recycling in the long term and steer recycling policies.
It is estimated that current recycling facilities using mainstream recycling technologies such as pyrometallurgy and hydrometallurgy, may add a limited greenhouse gas footprint to an electric vehicle battery (about 10%), compared to a battery manufactured from primary raw materials. Research points towards a net benefit when considering non-greenhouse gas indicators such as ecotoxicity. The scale-up of Li-ion battery recycling facilities, driven by electric vehicle deployment, as well other energy efficiency measures and renewable energy input into recycling processes will be necessary to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from battery recycling.
New, innovative recycling processes using less energy, and adequate sorting and separation of battery pieces that need recycling or that can directly be repurposed or repackaged into new batteries are also under research.
The policy landscape for battery end-of-life is evolving in key regions
Recent policy developments highlight an increased focus on the projected large scale deployment of batteries for automotive applications and their life-cycle impacts.
Battery collection and recycling policies have usually focused on other industries and battery technologies than the Li-ion batteries used in electric vehicles, such as consumer electronics or lead-acid batteries. Hence, they are not designed for electric vehicle battery end-of-life. In 2019, China mandated producer responsibility, holding them responsible for the recycling, as well as the reverse logistics involved in taking back the Li-ion batteries.
The European Union is currently reviewing its Battery Directive to adapt to transport electrification through identifying improvements and assessing the relevance, effectiveness, efficiency, coherence, and added value of the policy; it has set up a Battery Alliance to discuss further measures with key stakeholders. In the United States, the California Assembly Bill 2832 requires the formation of a Lithium-Ion Car Battery Recycling Advisory Group to advise the legislature on electric vehicle Li-ion battery recycling policy. These developments, along with private sector innovation, are expected to push forward battery end-of-life solutions.