Scientists are warning of a climate emergency where reducing greenhouse gas emissions, improving air quality in urban centers and meeting consumer needs are top priorities. Against this background, we see rapid growth in the acceptance of electric vehicles.
But just like the rechargeable batteries in your phone, the batteries in electric vehicles don't last forever. Given the projected global EV sales of 12 million units in 2025 and over 20 million by 2030, how will we deal with empty EV batteries?
The life of an electric vehicle's battery
Electric vehicles use several hundred large lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) – think your phone's battery – bundled together to act as one. Conventional petroleum cars, on the other hand, use lead-acid batteries.
Both are rechargeable, but have different characteristics in terms of durability and efficiency. LIBs can accept a faster rate of current, which means faster charging speeds compared to lead-acid batteries. This is important for time-critical situations in which vehicles have a high load and fewer break intervals.
LIBs also weigh less, which increases the range and performance of an electric vehicle. Compared to lead-acid batteries, LIBs are 1/3 the weight, three times as powerful and have three times the service life, which is estimated at 15 to 20 years.
After a few thousand charging cycles, the performance of a typical LIB pack can no longer supply the vehicle with power and must be replaced with a new one. But this supposedly dead battery is not just thrown away.
At least it shouldn't be like that, because it's not exactly "dead" per se.
It's not the end yet
Although the LIB package has lost effectiveness during its life cycle, it can still hold up to 80% of its performance. Although it is not suitable for further street use, it can be adapted for other purposes in less demanding applications.
For technology to be sustainable, it is no longer possible to simply throw away products that are no longer suitable for their original purpose. EV batteries are expensive and loaded with limited raw materials such as lithium and cobalt, which are harmful to dispose of and pose a risk of explosion if piled under heat in landfills.
Before disposal, these batteries should be used for another function, e.g. B. for charging stations or stationary energy storage devices to power factories, residential buildings, hospitals, etc.
In fact, in 2018 Toyota developed a program to connect old EV batteries to solar panels to power convenience stores in Japan.
Meanwhile, the Korean Ministry of Commerce has teamed up with LG Chem to make portable rechargeable batteries, AKA power banks, from discarded EV batteries. These are examples of how used LIBs can get a second life. This also allows governments to implement responsible solutions while accommodating their country's growth in EV adoption rates.
Tesla has its own program that claims 60% of LIB components will be recycled once they reach the end of their life. In addition, 10% of these batteries can be reused to build a new battery case for an electric vehicle.
The battery modules are the only material from Tesla's LIBs that ends up in the landfill. Before they are disposed of, however, the pieces are frozen, crushed, and crushed into harmless lint that will not contaminate the floor. Copper-cobalt is sold to recycling centers, and slurry blocks can be used to paint equipment.
Despite these examples, the problem is that EV batteries are very little recycled today and many still end up in landfills, leaching toxic chemicals that pollute our soil and rivers. In Australia, only 2-3% of LIBs are collected and sent overseas for recycling. In the EU and the USA, the rates are below 5%.
Most batteries that are recycled go through a process called "melting," which involves melting and extracting at high temperatures. And for electric vehicles, the dismantling process requires trained mechanics to do it by hand using special tools.
This consequently leads to high labor costs in developed countries where the income from the extracted materials may not be economically viable. Automated dismantling techniques with robotics can thus become a possible solution.
With Malaysia still lagging behind in the global EV race, we still need to find solutions for recycling such goods. But the question now is, will we be ready to do this when the time comes?
Maybe a look at how we deal with it on a small scale in the form of phone batteries.
We are just a collection point
According to the Ministry of the Environment (DOE) in 2020, the recycling rate for e-waste in Malaysia is a little more optimistic at 25%. However, the actual number of recycled LIBs itself is not clear.
ERTH founder Mohamed Tarek El-Fatatry told Vulcan Post that, unfortunately, Malaysia does not currently have such an e-waste disposal facility.
In 2019, the e-waste recycling center donated used LIBs from phones to Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore. They were used as test materials for the facility's new device, which could crush batteries and extract cobalt and lithium.
"They were able to recover up to 90% of the material from expired batteries and turn it into new ones," he said.
Mohamed Tarek added that some local companies are collecting LIBs for export to Korea. However, this activity ceased during the pandemic. "Nowadays we donate our old LIBs to hobbyists who are trying to make solar storage systems from old batteries," he said.
While Malaysia may be just an e-waste collector right now, it is offering local startups the opportunity to emerge in the field of battery life cycle management. In addition, electric vehicle manufacturers could themselves look for ways to recycle their own batteries, following the example of Tesla.
And since the authorities are still finalizing guidelines and the infrastructure for the storage of electric vehicles, it is worthwhile to draw up suitable plans for the disposal of the batteries even 15 years later.
- More articles we've written about electric vehicles can be found here.
Selected image source: Qnovo / ChargeNow