Increasing the amount of recycled battery material available in Europe is encouraging new companies to examine different ways to maximise the extraction of the essential metals
September 09, 2021
Original article published in Foresight Climate & Energy
PRIMARY DEMAND Cutting the levels of virgin metal used in EV batteries could help reduce dirty mining activities
RECYCLING RESEARCH To maximise the level of reusable material extracted from retired batteries academic institutions and new start-ups are researching new processes
KEY QUOTE Start-ups need further research work before their claimed lithium recycling rates can be materialised. This needs additional investments
Vehicles fuelled by fossil fuels are reaching the end of the road across Europe. Governments are increasingly adopting phase-out dates for petrol and diesel cars, while automakers are responding by announcing production end dates for such models.
But the transition to electric vehicles (EVs) requires a huge amount of raw materials. The European Commission estimates a 14-fold increase in global demand for batteries by 2030 (compared with 2018 levels), mostly driven by electric transport. By 2030, the EU alone will need 18 times more lithium and five times more cobalt, key elements of batteries. This rises to almost 60 times more lithium and 15 times more cobalt by 2050, it believes.
The danger is that demand for dirty fossil fuels will be replaced with demand for dirty mining. Cobalt extraction has been associated with hazardous conditions for workers and pollution, while lithium mining has come under scrutiny for its water intensity in particularly arid regions. Various strategies could help minimise the need for new mining for minerals needed for EVs, including improving battery design to extend lifetime, disincentivising private car ownership and reusing EV batteries in other sectors such as energy storage to extend their lifetimes.
But battery recycling is a key element of reducing demand for virgin material. The Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) found that optimising battery metal recovery could cut primary demand compared to total demand in 2040 by around 25% for lithium, 35% for cobalt and nickel, and 55% for copper. Worldwide, the capacity for battery recycling is around 180 kilotonnes per year (kt/yr), according to a report by the International Energy Agency (IEA). However, almost half of this is within China, which is planning to expand capacity significantly by 1,000 kt/y.
In the EU, the battery recycling industry is nascent, dominated by batteries in waste electronic products such as mobile phones and laptops. However, the IEA predicts significant growth in the next few years as sales of EVs and energy storage systems ramp up to the end of the decade.
By 2030, the IEA expects volumes of batteries reaching the end of their first life to rise from less than two gigawatt-hours (GWh) today to 100 GWh by 2030, and 600-1,300 GWh by 2040. These will come mostly from electric cars, while 10% will be from two and three-wheelers, more than 5% from buses and trucks and just over 1% from energy storage. In the intervening years, recyclers can scale operations up by recycling scrap material produced by manufacturers.
Scaling up the recycling of lithium-ion batteries to sufficient levels faces various technological and commercial challenges. Commercial viability of recycling depends on the costs of collecting and disassembling the batteries, as well as the value of the batteries recycled.
According to the IEA, barriers include a lack of comprehensive systems for material collection at a national level in most countries; a regulatory gap in discharging, disassembling and storing spent batteries; and fire risk from lithium-ion batteries posing problems for transport logistics. In addition, the wide variety of cell types and chemistries on the market make automation of recycling processes challenging. However, a new Batteries Regulation published by the European Commission in December 2020 aims to solve this.