What are the challenges for vehicle recyclers when faced with EV battery dismantling?
Maria Kelleher, an environmental engineer who specialises in waste management issues at Kelleher Environmental, provides us with her point of view when it comes to the challenges vehicle recyclers will face with regard to EV battery dismantling and what must be considered as more enter our yards.
Hybrid vehicles entered the market in 2000, and fully electric vehicles entered the market in 2010. Batteries from these vehicles are either nickel-metal hydride (for many hybrids) or lithium-ion batteries (for some hybrids, and all plug-in and full electric vehicles).
EV batteries last at least 8-10 years or longer and retain about 80% of their charge when no longer useful for an electric vehicle. The fact that the EV batteries retain a significant amount of their charge (up to 200 volts) is the reason they are dangerous if not handled properly at the vehicle recycling operation; it is also the reason that EV batteries have a value in the marketplace for a number of reuse applications.
EVs are beginning to appear in sufficient numbers in scrap yards to raise concern about proper management. Though the numbers are relatively small now, sales data shows their volumes will be growing. While the recycling of lead-acid batteries has traditionally been carried out at a profit, the recycling of EV batteries currently requires a fee because of the complex handling and dismantling requirements.
Currently, some scrap yards store the batteries, waiting for the right opportunity to reuse or recycle them, but this is only a temporary solution and soon these stored batteries will need to be either reused or recycled. Sources in the Canadian vehicle recycling industry report that brokers often offer to take the batteries away at no cost for refurbishment – but scrap yard managers don’t know what happens next.
A weighty situation?
EV batteries are heavy (93kg for a Toyota Prius Liftback hybrid; 183kg for a Chevrolet Volt and 478kg for a Tesla 3) and cannot be removed from a vehicle manually. These batteries are also dangerous if not handled by someone who has been properly trained and knows what they are doing. The 200-volt charge still retained in these batteries can seriously injure a worker, and at least one death has been reported through electric shock from an EV battery in Germany.
A sophisticated EV battery reuse business has emerged recently which is expected to grow substantially. The state of health (SOH) of battery cells and packs is first identified to establish whether cells should be reused or recycled. EV batteries or cells can be used for energy storage as part of renewable energy systems, can be combined with new cells to create refurbished EV batteries, or the cells can be separately deployed to operate drones, wheelchairs and other equipment which has lower energy density requirements.
What is the value of an end-of-life EV battery?
The value of new and used EV batteries is generally expressed as the cost per kilowatt-hour ($/kwhr). The cost of EV batteries has historically been about 1/3 of the cost of the vehicle, but that cost is decreasing rapidly.
Right now, a new EV battery costs at least $154/kwhr (compared to about $400/kwhr in 2015). For a Tesla 3 battery as an example, if 80% of the kwhr capacity can be sold into the reuse market, this results in a positive value selling the battery into the reuse/reconditioning market rather than incurring costs for recycling using traditional methods.
A June 2019 report from London-based Circular Energy Storage for the Global Battery Alliance, places the current value of second-life EV batteries at $60 to $300 and higher per kilowatt-hour, depending on the market and application. The report notes that prices for reused EV batteries will simply drop to continue to be a cost-competitive option.
Whereas traditional recycling of lithium-ion batteries involves processing them to recover lithium and manganese and send processed materials to smelters for nickel and cobalt recovery, a number of companies are currently developing direct “cathode to cathode” recycling approaches which are likely to offer a different economic profile for EV battery recycling.
Most cathode to cathode recycling approaches (none are yet operating at full scale) would recover separate materials such as lithium, manganese, aluminium, cobalt and nickel from the cathodes through hydrometallurgical processes and avoid the energy-intensive smelting process. If successful, these new approaches would allow the recyclers to sell recovered metals directly back to battery manufacturers at much higher profit margins, rather than selling materials to smelters for further processing (which is the current approach).
As the number of EV batteries appearing at vehicle recyclers’ yards increases, formal procedures need to be established to ensure that the handling of EV batteries is done safely only by well-trained staff. Vehicle recyclers need to know what the options are for managing EV batteries – generally, sell to a reuse market for a profit, or send to a battery recycler which currently has a cost, although this scenario may change as more direct cathode to cathode technologies reach scale.
There are also some concerns about tracking EV batteries and battery packs and cells through the reuse supply chain so that the provenance of the batteries and cells is known. All of these systems will likely develop over the next few years as the number of EV batteries at end of life increases.
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