Talk of a mountain of lithium car battery waste raises an eyebrow!

Recently a report from the University of Birmingham raised concerns that there could be an electric vehicle battery waste mountain.

The report focussed on the challenge of capturing and reusing metals such as cobalt, nickel and manganese, as well as lithium, and sparked quite a response.

One commentator said “Lithium-ion batteries remain one of the biggest challenges to the assumption that BEVs are ‘clean’” and quoted a figure that just five percent of electric vehicle battery components are able to be recycled against up to 99 per cent of those in a lead acid battery.

Thankfully, this is wrong but spells out the misinformation and confusion currently surrounding the recycling of lithium-ion batteries.  In fact, a much greater percentage can be recycled (Pyrometallurgical treatment typically offers less than 48 per cent) and there are a lot of other treatment options currently being started/developed which promise to offer higher levels touching above 98 per cent.

A more relevant ‘5 per cent’ figure would be the percentage of lithium-ion batteries that has already been recycled to date, which is relatively low but no surprise as the majority of devices and vehicles are still in operation.

How clean really is green?

A strong positive for this battery chemistry is that in propulsion form, electric cars are lasting much longer than predicted.  This certainly stalls ‘a mountain’ from coming as the end of life for an EV car is not accurately set just yet.  The SMMT has just recorded that the first mainstream electric cars on the road 18 years ago are still going strong and first adopter vehicles like Nissan Leaf and Vauxhall Ampera are reaching high mileages with better than predicted battery health.

Our Battery Safety Training support expert, Andy Latham from Salvage Wire, has a 2012 Vauxhall Ampera model which has nearly completed 140k miles and has 92 per cent battery health.  The car has undergone some brake changes but little else cementing the fact that vehicles with less moving parts will have a reduction on ownership costs and help longevity.

Four strands come together to ensure that without doubt the future of transport is electric: it’s deemed mandatory by upcoming legislation, there’s a global environmental consciousness, a need for realistic ownership options and a greater choice of EV and PHEV car products joining the market.  In October 2019, one in ten vehicles sold in the UK was an EV or PHEV and all graphs predicting growth are pointing in an upwards.

The million-pound question then is when will these batteries become EOL (End of life) and need treatment in sufficient volumes that they would create a mountainous problem if recycling routes are not present?

Increasing volume

There is very limited information on this but recently Cartakeback indicated that they will likely see the ATF Networks (Approved Treatment Facilities) have EOL volume levels of EV cars in the next five to ten years.

This leads us to the reality of what is happening today.  EV Battery packs are actually thin on the ground and whilst a recycling market is developing, there’s a small amount of stockpiling while Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMS) and ATFs find solutions.  There is also a burgeoning sector of enthusiasts and R&D companies swallowing up early batteries that are available to pursue innovations including disposal trials, power storage and even car conversions from internal combustion to fully electric.  The power and flexibility of large lithium-ion batteries certainly has its uses.

However, this does muddy the waters somewhat as recycling and reuse options accelerate quicker with higher levels of demand and not having that, innovation from the waste industry stalls without a clear business model that is commercially viable.

Treatment wise, the most well-used recycling route for lithium-ion battery waste is via the metallurgical treatment plants in Europe as the UK currently does not have this ability domestically.  Companies such as Umicore have invested millions of Euros to have a process which starts with pyrometallurgy and extracts cobalt, nickel and copper as an alloy which is then further separated at a hydrometallurgical stage.  The other cathode metals like lithium and manganese form a salt residue which is currently sent on to the aggregates industry.  The initial heat treatment does make recovery of other battery constituents difficult as a good proportion of the battery is destroyed in the process, hence the less than 48 per cent.

Interestingly The Battery Directive, which governs the recycling responsibilities of Battery Producers, spells out the minimum requirements for recycling at 50 per cent so there is clearly some improvement available and the story of lithium-ion battery recycling has only just begun with innovation and new ideas of how best to deal with them now starting to come out.

Of course, setting a target is not the same as achieving it, but as we’ve been handling lithium-ion batteries since 2012. There is a level of confidence that recycling services will grow with the problem and not be shocked when volumes arrive.  Currently the waste batteries that are being worked on by Cawleys are from R&D destructive testing and premature end of life.  By design, these are when the battery packs exhibit their highest danger levels requiring the most stringent packaging and transport considerations.  The high risk continues to a decommissioning phase where the packs are broken down to a modular level which releases some of the danger as we then handle much lower voltages;  it’s a safer prospect to work with 20 x 30V modules than 1 x 600V battery.

However, the reverse logistics of breaking down an electric battery are complex. At present it involves a specially trained technician wearing specific arc-flash proof PPE to dismantle the batteries safely with special insulated tooling.  Risk assessment and method statements have been generated to make the process as safe as can be but even with such protocols the danger of fire and electrocution is very real.  Away from these obvious dangers the handling of a 600+kg mass is awkward. This sometimes is easier said than done especially when the batteries are heavily damaged with componentry fusing together after a heat event.

All of our current dismantling effort is dependent on skilled manpower and whilst this fits right now as volumes of batteries are low, as this increases this will not be the way forward due to labour cost and speed.  However, the one thing the waste and automotive industry does have is a well-trodden history of mechanical solutions with shredders, density separation, magnets, eddy currents, screens which can help in the segregation of componentry from lithium batteries.

The trick here is to do it safely and without creating a fire and releasing toxic gases which is a certainty if you throw a battery with charge into a shredder.  There are mitigating techniques like doing this in oxygen-less atmosphere or freezing the batteries in liquid nitrogen first, but success is mixed and the energies required to create the conditions high.

The main sure way to prevent fires is to remove electrical energy first from the battery through deep discharge which is a touch impractical for small individual cells but very possible for large battery packs and modules for an industrial scale process.

Other new techniques are also emerging with bio-leaching and ultrasonics being cited but there is a long way to go to get these in a commercially viable position.  That said the future for lithium battery waste recycling is very buoyant and an exciting opportunity, especially in the UK.

Companies like Cawleys have made great inroads to offer compliant services now with a clear eye to the future and what the market is likely to want and need.  New relationships are being formed all the time and collaboration has been the secret of our success as the answer for lithium battery recycling truly is multifaceted.

Overall the picture is positive!


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