In a review of current battery recycling efforts, a team led by the University of Birmingham researchers reported that the British government and the industry need to act now to meet future recycling needs. The researchers noted that while electric vehicles offer a solution for cutting air pollution, the lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) used to power these cars pose a massive waste problem.
As such, the researchers underscored the importance of developing a robust recycling infrastructure to prevent mountains of battery waste in the future.
The problem posed by LIB waste is already significant and is set to grow as demand for electric vehicles rises. Based on the one million electric cars sold in 2017, the researchers estimated that 250,000 tons of unprocessed LIB waste will be produced when these vehicles reach the "end of their lives."
"Electrification of just two percent of the current global car fleet would represent a line of cars that could stretch around the circumference of the Earth – some 140 million vehicles," said co-author Andrew Abbott of the University of Leicester.
Abbott added that landfills will not be enough to properly dispose of LIB waste. The most viable solution is to recycle the batteries. This, according to Abbot, may also serve as a sustainable resource for valuable materials such as cobalt, lithium and manganese.
The U.K., in particular, can benefit from recycling LIBs. In an analysis from the Faraday Institution, a British research body for energy storage, researchers predicted that the country may need seven major factories by 2040 to meet the rising demand for LIBs. Therefore, the U.K. will need sustainable sources of critical battery materials.
The researchers identified key challenges that engineers and policy-makers will need to address, namely:
Lead author Gavin Harper of the Birmingham Centre for Strategic Elements and Critical Materials at Birmingham University acknowledged that recycling LIBs is a little more complex. Harper said: "The recycling challenge is not straightforward: there is enormous variety in the chemistries, shapes and designs of lithium-ion batteries used in [electric vehicles]."
Co-author Paul Christensen of Newcastle University called for a holistic and comprehensive recycling approach. "What we need is an urgent look at the whole lifecycle of the battery – from digging the materials out of the ground to disposing of them again at the end," Christensen said. (Related: Solid state battery breakthrough could be a total game-changer for electric vehicles.)
Whatever the case, it is clear that nations at the forefront of the "electric car revolution" have a long way to go before recycling technologies can keep pace with the vehicles' rapid rise. Addressing the challenges outlined by the researchers will be critical for the smooth transition to electric vehicles.
For more about the environmental consequences of electric vehicles, visit RoboCars.news.