Discarded electric car batteries are creating a huge mountain of waste that could spark a pollution crisis, scientists have warned.
Electric cars are hailed as one of the key technologies in the fight against climate change, but a new study claims that recycling technology is struggling to keep pace.
This is leading to thousands of tonnes of unprocessed battery pack waste building up – and potentially leaching dangerous chemicals into the environment.
In the report, scientists from the University of Birmingham urge governments and industry to ‘act now to develop a robust recycling plan that can meet future needs’.
Dr Gavin Harper, study author, said that without a major recycling technology development, the million electric cars sold in 2017 will produce 250,000 tonnes of unprocessed battery pack waste in their lifetime.
He added that the recycling challenge is not straightforward, as there is an enormous variety in the chemistry, shape and design of lithium-ion batteries used by electric vehicles.
In order to recycle these batteries efficiently, they must be disassembled and the resulting waste streams separated into their constituent parts.
As well as lithium the batteries also contain a number of other valuable metals such as cobalt, nickel and manganese that could be reused, according to Dr Harper.
Analysis by the Faraday Institution – the UK’s independent institute for electrochemical energy storage research – says the demand for electric vehicle battery packs could be an opportunity for the UK.
It found that the UK may need to build eight gigafactories by 2040 to service the demand for electric vehicle batteries.
Gigafactory is a word first used by Tesla owner Elon Musk to describe a massive factory that produces a ‘significant amount’ of battery power measured in giga-watt hours.
Dr Harper says the UK will need to develop sources of supply for the critical materials required for these batteries and recycled material could play a important role.
Professor Andrew Abbott, of the University of Leicester, said: ‘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.’
Professor Abbott said recycling the batteries would avoid placing a ‘huge burden’ on landfill and help to secure the supply of critical materials needed in future battery production.
The researchers suggest developing rapid repair and recycling methods, particularly given that large-scale storage of electric batteries is potentially unsafe.
Professor Paul Christensen, of Newcastle University, is working with the UK Fire and Rescue service on developing ways of dealing with lithium-ion battery fires.
Electric vehicle waste challenges
The study has identified a number of key challenges that engineers and policy-makers will need to address in dealing with the electric vehicle battery waste problem. Including:
- Identifying second use applications for end of life batteries
- Developing rapid repair and recycling methods, particularly given that large-scale storage of electric batteries is potentially unsafe
- Improving diagnostics of batteries, battery packs and battery cells, so the state of health of batteries can be accurately assessed prior to repurposing
- Optimising battery designs for recycling to enable automated battery disassembly, safer than the current manual handling techniques
- Designing new stabilisation processes that enable end-of-life batteries to be opened and separated, and developing techniques or processes to ensure that components are not contaminated during recycling
Professor Christensen said: ‘These batteries contain huge amounts of power and at the moment we are still relatively unprepared about how we deal with them when they reach the end of their life.
‘One of the areas of research for this project is to look at automation and how we can safely and efficiently dismantle spent batteries and recover the valuable materials such as lithium and cobalt.
‘But there’s also a public safety issue that needs addressing as second-life EV batteries become more widely available.
‘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.’