Governments must prepare for tsunami of electric car batteries, warns Royal Society of Chemistry president

Swedish company Northvolt said on December 29 that its purported gigafactory assembled its first lithium-ion battery cell, a European first. The electric vehicle battery startup was founded in 2015 by Peter Carlsson, a former Tesla executive. The company will ramp up production next year, but already has $ 30 billion in orders on its books from auto customers such as BMW, Volkswagen, Volvo and Polestar.

Gigafactories can produce enough batteries each year to provide around 15 gigawatt hours of storage, with most cells intended for use in electric cars. The Northvolt plant in northern Sweden is the third largest full-scale electric vehicle (EV) plant in Europe. Battery data company Benchmark Mineral Intelligence (BMI) says the other two Korean-owned companies are in Poland and Hungary. BMI predicts that there will be 25 European giga-factories by 2030.

The UK has only planned two gigafactories. One, owned by Chinese company Envision, is emerging from the ground in Sunderland, while startup Britishvolt is currently raising money for a local factory in nearby Blyth.

While there is considerable investment in battery production, there is relatively little money for what to do with depleted cells.

“We need electric vehicles to replace [vehicles powered by] internal combustion engines, “argues Tom Welton, president of the London-based Royal Society of Chemistry, and he welcomes the surge in production of electric car batteries but, he adds,” at the same time time, we have to work on the reuse or recycling of these batteries.

And not enough is being done to increase recycling and reuse rates.

“[Electric car batteries] have relatively fixed lifespans, ”said Welton, professor of sustainable chemistry at Imperial College London. He said there would soon be a “tsunami of batteries ready to be replaced”.

“We need to be more than ready when this happens,” he warned.

And that requires investment.

“It needs investments from governments as well as the private sector,” he said.

Strategy

Earlier this year, the UK government delayed its infrastructure strategy for electric vehicles, which is expected to include policies on recycling. In response, the UK Local Government Association said there was a “lack of coherent strategic direction at the national level, including no articulation of the vision for the future”. In addition, the agency said, there was a “lack of clarity on the role [local] The authorities were to play a role in providing charging infrastructure for electric vehicles.

Typically, an electric car battery should be replaced after 100,000 kilometers of driving, which is five years for the average motorist. The Faraday Institution, a British research organization specializing in battery technology, estimates that some 250,000 tonnes of lithium-ion battery packs will reach the end of their life within 15 years.

Storage

Electric vehicle sales rose 89% in 2021, with almost 11% of all new cars in the UK being either electric or hybrid models. Volkswagen revealed earlier this month that it will spend $ 102 billion on the development of electric vehicles over the next five years. The German automaker has pledged to recycle 97% of all raw materials used on its cars (today it’s 55%). Still, its battery recycling plant remains experimental, with a company statement saying it cannot be expanded because “disposal and sourcing of valuable raw materials is still very expensive.”

Nissan’s Blue Switch project plans to recycle electric car batteries for mobile emergency power supplies following natural disasters, and in Japan, electric car batteries have been reused as storage cells in solar farms. The Enel Group uses batteries recovered from Nissan LEAF cars at an energy storage facility in Melilla, Spain. And, in the UK, Renault has partnered with Powervault to use spent electric car batteries in home energy storage systems.

But these are small-scale projects, often just trials, and, at the moment, there isn’t enough money in recycling or reuse to build large-scale recycling facilities in Europe.

“Battery technology offers us a path to decarbonization,” Welton said, “but we cannot treat it trivially; we need to take it seriously, and a big part of it is recycling those items ensuring that these rare items are reused again rather than just disposed of and end up in a landfill.

Cycle of life

Tesla announced in August that it had started building recycling capacity at its Gigafactory in Nevada, and earlier, Redwood Materials in nearby Carson City had raised $ 700 million to expand its business. The startup, founded by a former Tesla executive, plans to extract parts from used electric car batteries. (An electric vehicle battery can have up to 70% capacity remaining at end of life.)

VW, Nissan, Tesla and other automakers might brag about their cell recycling policies, but it’s nonetheless clear that investments in production eclipse those in salvage.

“There are going to be problems in the future if we don’t think about how we are going to recycle, recover and reuse the items [used in electric car batteries]”Welton said.

“We have to do it now,” he suggested.

Automakers, he added, should make it “easier to recycle than not to recycle”.

Cars, like many other electronic products that use rare elements such as lithium, nickel and cobalt, whose mining has impacts on the climate, the environment and human rights, must be designed from the outset to be reused or recycled.

The ‘design-for-recycle’ production method should be built into the initial design process for everything from cars to smartphones.

“Cars are very complex devices and the separation [them to retrieve] the materials can be extremely tough, ”Welton said.

Instead, manufacturers should design their new vehicles to be easily removable.

“Has it been designed so that it is easy to take apart and recycle? We know we’re going to be using a lot more of these electric vehicles. [so] we will have to recycle them to recover [rare] elements. [Manufacturers] must now think about how [cars can be designed] so that all the useful materials they contain can be easily recovered.

Automakers, Welton urges, shouldn’t think “how bad [a car] look on the forecourt, but how to dismantle this car to recover all the materials that it is made of, so that they can be recycled and reused.

“We don’t have to wait to be seated in a mess,” Welton said.

“We see the problem coming. Let’s do what’s necessary now to make sure we don’t go into a crisis in the future. ”

Regulations

The EU has proposed changes to battery regulations, with the aim of enforcing better recycling of lithium-ion batteries and protecting potential recycling companies from volatile raw material prices.

The Royal Society of Chemistry was one of the organizations invited to testify before the UK government’s Environmental Audit Committee, which last year examined electronic waste such as the estimated 40 million unused gadgets stored in people’s homes. because they don’t know how to get rid of it. of them.

In a report, the committee recommended the importance of a “reduce, reuse, recycle” economy, called for incentives to design technologies for sustainability, and stressed the need for improved labeling. The recommendations have now been submitted to the government for possible inclusion in a new environmental bill.

Solution

There is a lot of hype around personal electric vehicles, but much less about existing sustainable modes of transportation, Welton said.

“I don’t own a car; I travel by public transport, which is a very easy way to make smart carbon choices. ”

He added: “We must work to make the availability of public transport much more widespread, much more accessible and cheaper so that our climate goals are met. ”

He suggested that governments who believe electric vehicles are the main answer to reducing transport emissions should also invest heavily in public transport.

“The means by which people get around must be more energy efficient, and good, reliable and cheap public transport means people [will] choose not to drive.

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