The short answer is yes. But that’s a complicated question, so let’s dive further.
The transition to electric vehicles (EVs) is necessary to reduce climate-damaging emissions. As usage increases, so does the demand for electric vehicle battery materials such as lithium, cobalt and nickel. These materials are primarily supplied from two sources: 1) newly mined or 2) recovered by recycling batteries already in circulation.
Using recycled materials results in a significantly lower environmental impact and is a substitute for newly mined materials, although the materials must already have been extracted, made into a battery, and then phased out.
Research shows that there are enough discovered or prospective reserves to electrify the global transportation sector with current technology if a high degree of battery recycling takes place. In this scenario, global demand in 2100 will be about 55% of cobalt reserves and 50% of lithium reserves.
This is in stark contrast to a future without high recycling rates.
Unless recycling is ramped up, lithium, nickel or cobalt shortages are unlikely, but it is estimated that demand would exceed what is economically feasible. In this scenario, demand in 2060 exceeds cobalt reserves and about 90% of lithium reserves. In other words, to meet projected needs, funding must go beyond what is considered economically viable. This decline in reserves would likely increase material costs, trigger increased exploration and development and potentially expand reserves.
Scientists assessing resource availability from mining typically look at two categories: total available resources and reserves. This distinction is important because reserves represent the global resources that exist economically to extract, while the total resources represent an estimate of the Finite global resources. Reserve estimates are therefore much less than total resources and will vary with material value, mineral exploration and technological development.
Recycling has many benefits
Recycling can drastically reduce the need for new mining and is an essential strategy for sustainable, safe and affordable electrification.
How does recycling become more sustainable? The environmental impact of using recycled material is much lower than that of virgin materials. Because the materials recovered through recycling were already in the economy, the only impacts associated with their manufacture are the transportation of the battery for recycling, pre-processing, and recycling. By using recycled instead of reclaimed materials, the reduction in climate-damaging greenhouse gas emissions is around 64%. Emissions that create smog and affect human health can also be reduced; Sulfur oxides can be reduced by 89% and nitrogen oxides by 78%.
Why is recycling an essential strategy to achieve safe and affordable electrification? In addition to comparing available supply and demand, there are many other factors that can lead to material shortages, such as: B. insufficient processing capacity and geopolitical issues in the supply chain. Recycling can ensure a local supply of materials and reduce demand for new materials, all factors that can keep costs down.
How much demand can be met with recycled materials?
Estimates show that in the United States, a large portion of future material demand for electric vehicles can be met with recycled content. In 2050, recovered material can provide about 45–52% of cobalt, 40–46% of nickel, and 22–27% of lithium for electric vehicles. In the short term, recycled content will account for a smaller amount of battery materials – this will grow as more material is in the economy and EV batteries are phased out.
Because degraded materials are needed to complement the recycled content, we must ensure ethical and sustainable sourcing. In addition, it is crucial that material demand is reduced by increasing the material efficiency of batteries and electric vehicles, and shifting dependency away from the car and towards more public transport.
Is recycling worth it?
While the exact economics of the operating recycling facilities are unknown, plans for recycling facility expansion, along with recycling cost estimates using National Lab models, suggest that lithium-ion battery recycling is (or will soon be) profitable . Because recycling is not mandated in the US, current recycling is done for reasons of economy or funded research and development.
Recycling revenues are strongly influenced by the materials contained in the battery and their market value. Inside a lithium-ion battery there is an anode, the negative electrode, and a cathode, the positive electrode. The battery charges and discharges by circulating lithium ions between the anode and cathode.
The materials used in the cathode of the lithium-ion battery vary. Until recently, most popular EVs contained a cobalt and nickel battery because of their long range and compact size. Tesla and Ford are now transitioning to a cobalt-free chemistry called lithium iron phosphate (LFP) for their shorter-range electric vehicles. Nickel and cobalt are expensive materials and have some of the largest environmental and social impacts associated with them. Reducing the use of these materials is beneficial overall, but it also reduces the value of the battery for recyclers.
As cobalt and nickel are reduced (or eliminated entirely) in batteries, recycling can still be done, but it may not be viable with current recycling technology. Because recycling is not a requirement and recycling is primarily based on positive economics, it is important that policies are in place to ensure that all batteries are recycled even where there are not high economic returns.
What does this mean for long-term material procurement for lithium-ion batteries?
There are enough materials to make electric vehicles, but recycling is necessary to make them more sustainable, ethical and affordable.
The switch from petrol to electric offers a great opportunity for efficient use of resources. Unlike our current system where we continually extract petroleum and burn it in our cars and trucks, contributing to air pollution and climate change, the minerals we use to build electric vehicles can be captured and reused to power the next generation to support cleaner vehicles.
Currently, the United States does not require recycling of lithium-ion batteries, but we know recycling is happening, thanks to reports from recyclers and contracts between automakers and recyclers. While this is a good indicator, a policy that encourages and encourages EV battery recycling is still necessary to ensure that as many batteries as possible are recycled, even if it is not profitable to do so.
EV battery recycling policy in the United States to date consists of investments in recycling research, development and demonstration, such as: B. in the non-partisan infrastructure law. On the other hand, California is more actively examining recycling requirements. A group of stakeholders recently put policy recommendations to lawmakers, including requiring automakers to be responsible for recycling EV batteries when they are phased out. You can find an overview of their process and results in a recent blog of mine. We will follow the next legislature closely in the hope that good policy will be developed.