WIDESPREAD recycling of electric car batteries could reduce the need to mine some earth metals by as much as 55%, according to a new report.
The report, prepared for non-profit organisation Earthworks by the Institute of Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney, found that recycling spent EV batteries could reduce primary demand in car making for copper by 55%, cobalt and nickel by 35% and lithium by 25%.
It found that it would be possible to recover 95% of all four metals from used car batteries, but that there was a lack of economic incentives or policy to encourage the use of recycled materials in the manufacturing of new batteries.
Estimated recovery rates are currently as low as 10% for copper and 12% for lithium, although some car makers are focusing on making their batteries as reusable as possible — the powerplant in the BMW iX3 is claimed to be 96% recyclable.
The report said: “Technologies required to produce, store and utilise renewable energy require a significant amount of materials that are found predominantly in environmentally sensitive and often economically marginalised regions of the world.
“As demand for these materials increase, the pressures on these regions are likely to be amplified.”
The potential for cobalt and nickel mining to decrease by more than a third will be seen as particularly significant, as they are often seen as a thorn in the side of EVs’ sustainable credentials (although recycling rates for cobalt and nickel from EV batteries are already relatively high, at 80% and 73% respectively).
Cobalt is primarily mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where so called “artisanal miners”, who have been known to employ unethical practices such as child labour, are prominent — although they only represent 10% of the cobalt sold in the DRC by value, they employ up to 200,000 people, 185,000 more than Glencore, the biggest western company operating in the country.
Some car companies have vowed not to use Congolese cobalt, but, because the African nation is responsible for three quarters of the global supply, such promises are not easy to follow through on.
Tesla is currently named alongside Apple, Microsoft and Google in a lawsuit concerning the deaths of child labourers in the DRC. CATL, a component supplier to Tesla, is working on creating a cobalt-free battery, but this has not yet come to fruition. In the meantime the California car maker has struck a deal with Glencore which will see it use only “certified” cobalt.
Nickel supply companies have also come under fire in recent times. Nornickel, which supplies nickel to car makers including BMW, was criticised last year by Russian President Vladmir Putin after it spilled 20,000 tonnes of diesel into a Siberian river.
Meanwhile, the Ramu nickel and cobalt mine in Papua New Guinea has come under fire for a toxic spill in 2019 as well as the use of a process called high-pressure acid leaching that creates 1.5 tonnes of toxic waste per tonne of usable product. This waste is then disposed of at sea due to the risks involved in storing it on land.
Any increase in nickel mining is likely to result in further use of high-pressure acid leaching. However, today’s report estimated that recycling nickel could save the equivalent of 12 million new EV batteries by 2040.
“This research proves that we don’t need to dig new holes in the ground to power the clean energy transition,” said Payal Sampat, Earthworks’ Mining Program Director. “We can accelerate the transition to a sustainable materials economy by ensuring that the minerals in electric vehicle batteries are sourced responsibly.”
The lifespan of modern EV batteries is estimated to be between eight and 15 years, meaning that there are currently relatively few end-of-life batteries. This enables car makers to put spent batteries to use — Nissan, for example, uses first-generation Leaf batteries to power the automated guided vehicles in its factories.
However, tactics like these will not be sufficient by the late 2020s or early 2030s, when the number of end-of-life batteries will increase in tandem with the number of electric cars being sold now. Researchers also noted that batteries no longer suitable for use in EVs could have other applications, such as for grid storage.
While the report said that recycling could significantly reduce the need for new mining, it also said that other strategies must be considered, including reducing the levels of private car ownership.
- After reading that recycling electric car batteries could reduce mining of metals by up to 55%, you might be interested that researchers at Penn State found that lithium-iron-phosphate batteries could be cheaper and safer than the ones currently used.
- British scientists have also found a way to produce lithium for EV batteries in the UK.
- Volkswagen has appointed a watchdog to ensure that all components of its EV batteries are sustainably sourced.