A major new UK study has highlighted the growing problem of lithium-ion battery waste and urged technological solutions to address the issue.
While the growth in electric vehicles is helping to cut pollution at point of use, recycling technologies for the large batteries that power them is not keeping pace. According to the study, published in Nature, action must be taken now to avoid a potentially massive waste management problem in the near future. The work was led by the University of Birmingham in collaboration with Newcastle and Leicester universities.
“The recycling challenge is not straightforward: there is enormous variety in the chemistries, shapes and designs of lithium ion batteries used in EVs,” said lead author Dr Gavin Harper, Faraday Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham.
“Individual cells are formed into modules, which are then assembled into battery packs. To recycle these efficiently, they must be disassembled and the resulting waste streams separated. As well as lithium, these batteries contain a number of other valuable metals, such as cobalt, nickel and manganese, and there is the potential to improve the processes which are currently used to recover these for reuse.”
It’s estimated that every one million EVs sold will ultimately lead to around 250,000 tonnes of battery waste. Although undoubtedly a growing issue, it also presents a potential opportunity for a new industrial segment in repurposing and recycling, according to the researchers.
“Electrification of just two per cent of the current global car fleet would represent a line of cars that could stretch around the circumference of the Earth – some 140 million vehicles,” said co-author Professor Andrew Abbott, from the University of Leicester.
“Landfill is clearly not an option for this amount of waste. Finding ways to recycle EV batteries will not only avoid a huge burden on landfill, it will also help us secure the supply of critical materials, such as cobalt and lithium, that surely hold the key to a sustainable automotive industry.”
The study identified several key challenges for engineers and policymakers, including identifying second use applications, rapid repair and recycling, improved battery diagnostics, new stabilisation processes, and design optimisation to facilitate automated disassembly and recycling of battery waste.
“One of the areas of research for this project is to look at automation and how we can safely and efficiently dismantle spent batteries and recover the valuable materials such as lithium and cobalt,” said Newcastle University’s Professor Paul Christensen.
“But there’s also a public safety issue that needs addressing as second-life EV batteries become more widely available. What we need is an urgent look at the whole lifecycle of the battery – from digging the materials out of the ground to disposing of them again at the end.”
Meanwhile, Renault has provided an innovative example of how lithium batteries can have a second life after their EV role has run its course. Its Black Swan motorboat uses four reconditioned batteries from Renault Z.E. vehicles to power a pair of 20kW electric motors. Based on an existing craft built by Italian firm Tullio Abbate, it was designed by Renault in partnership with French maritime operator Seine Alliance, for whom it will lay the path for an all-electric river cruise fleet by 2024.