As automakers invest more in electric vehicles (EVs), environmentalists and scientists are raising alarms about what will happen once the batteries have run their course.
The International Energy Agency predicts that by 2030 there will be between 148 and 230 million battery-powered vehicles on the road, accounting for up to 12% of the world’s automobiles. While this is a fantastic prediction for the environment, not all aspects of electric vehicles are environmentally friendly.
The majority of EV batteries are made from a lithium-ion chemical formula. Lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) differ in chemistry; Some LIBs contain nickel and cobalt while others use phosphate as the primary metal. So what are the similarities between all these different formulations? First, the raw metals are all mined, finite and often sourced from countries with more relaxed environmental regulations. Second, LIBs are toxic and can be especially dangerous if they end up in landfills.
A recent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report found that LIBs caused at least 65 fires at municipal waste disposal facilities in 2020. In addition to the toxicity of batteries when not properly disposed of, there is a missed opportunity for automakers who do not take advantage of recycling opportunities.
How does a circular economy reduce toxic waste?
Environmentalists and economists have been promoting the concept of a circular economy for decades, but it has only gained general popularity in the last decade. A circular economy is a production and consumption model that allows materials to be recycled, reused and repaired to extend their lifespan and reduce waste and energy use.
Imagine a car battery designed to be recycled. The battery engineer can incorporate less corrosive adhesive into their design to protect some of the battery materials for longer, which could extend battery life.
Then when a battery starts to show signs of wear, instead of sending the battery to a landfill, they send the battery to their integrated recycling process where they can extract valuable metals. From there, the recycled product is further processed into new batteries for future electric vehicles, and the automaker is less dependent on international materials.
This is how the circular economy works. A circular economy not only benefits the environment by limiting single-use products and over-extraction of valuable materials, but can also benefit industries and supply chains economically. without the geopolitical risks associated with reliance on foreign mining companies for EV materials.
The past two years have shown how disastrous an over-reliance on foreign materials in the supply chain can be. In July, Ford had to cancel reservations for its high-demand electric pickup. The company had more than 200,000 reservations but had to put them on hold because it could not source the quantities of graphite it needed to manufacture its EV batteries.
Geopolitical tensions and the war between Russia and Ukraine have also plagued supply chains. Countries like China have limited exports of phosphate, an essential material in a growing number of LIB chemistries. North American automakers are beginning to recognize the need for materials closer to home. Using recycling programs and partners who can extend the life of battery materials is one way to reduce reliance on overseas suppliers.
Recycling programs are the future of electric vehicles
While there are many manufacturing hurdles to overcome for the EV market to become a fully efficient circular economy, finding companies that are able to recycle batteries is a big step in the right direction.
RecycLiCo Battery Materials Inc. is a battery materials company focused on recycling and upcycling of lithium-ion batteries. It has developed a patented closed-loop hydrometallurgical process that can capture up to 100% of the lithium, cobalt, nickel and manganese extraction used in LIBs and integrate the materials into the reprocessing of new LIBs.
Companies like RecycLiCo are instrumental in the circular economy and the future of EV production. The next decade will be a critical test of how environmentally friendly EV production is and how automakers adapt to ongoing supply chain issues.
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