Scientists warn of a climate emergency where reducing greenhouse gas emissions, improving air quality in urban centers and meeting consumer needs are the top priorities. In light of this, we see the rapid growth of the adoption of electric vehicles (EVs).
But just like phone rechargeable batteries, electric vehicle batteries won’t last forever. With worldwide sales of electric vehicles it is expected to reach 12 million units by 2025 and more than 20 million by 2030, the question is: how will we treat dead EV batteries?
The battery life of an EV
Electric vehicles use several hundred large lithium-ion (LIB) batteries, think of the phone’s battery, which come together to function as one. In contrast, conventional oil vehicles use lead-acid batteries.
Both are rechargeable, but have different properties in terms of their useful life and efficiency. LIBs can accept a file faster current speed, that is, faster charging speeds compared to lead-acid batteries. This is critical for time-sensitive situations where vehicles have high utilization and fewer break intervals.
LIBs also weigh less, which increases the range and performance of an EV. Compared to lead-acid batteries, LIBs are 1/3 of the weight, 3 times more powerful and have 3 times the useful life, which is estimated 15-20 years.
After a few thousand charge cycles, the performance of a typical LIB package can no longer power the vehicle and must be replaced by a new one. But this supposedly spent battery isn’t just thrown away.
Or at least he shouldn’t, because he’s not exactly “dead.”
It’s not the end yet
Although the LIB package has lost its effectiveness over its life cycle, it can still do so maintain up to 80% of its power. While not suitable for continued road use, it can be adapted for other uses in less demanding uses.
For technology to be sustainable, it is no longer an option to simply throw away products that are no longer fit for their original purpose. EV batteries are expensive and charge with limited raw materials, such as lithium and cobalt, which are harmful to remove and present risks. exploding when piled up in landfills under heat.
Before disposing of them, these batteries must be reused to be reused for a different function, such as recharging stations or stationary energy storage in power plants, residential buildings, hospitals, and so on.
In fact, Toyota in 2018 introduced a scheme that connects old EV batteries to solar panels to feed convenience stores in Japan.
In the meantime, From Korea the ministry of commerce partnered with LG Chem to produce portable batteries, AKA power banks, using discarded EV batteries. These are cases of how a second life can be given to used LIBs. It is also how governments can implement responsible solutions while adapting to the growth of their country’s electric vehicle adoption rates.
Tesla has its own program where it claims 60% of LIB components they are recycled once they have reached the end of life. To add, 10% of these batteries can be reused to build a new battery box for an EV.
Battery modules are the only material in Tesla’s LIBs to enter the landfill. But before throwing them away, the parts are frozen, crumbled and broken into harmless fluff that does not contaminate the soil. Copper-cobalt is sold at recycling centers and manure blocks can be used to paint appliances.
Now, despite these examples, the problem is that EV batteries continue to be recycled very little today, and many continue to end up in landfills of toxic chemicals that pollute the soil and rivers. In Australia, only 2-3% of LIBs are collected and shipped overseas for recycling. In the EU and the US, rates are below 5%.
Most recycled batteries go through a process called “pit”Where fusion and extraction take place at high temperature. And, for electric vehicles, the dismantling process requires mechanical skills to do it by hand with specialized tools.
This leads, consequently, to high labor costs in developed countries, where income from extracted materials may not be economically worthwhile. Therefore, automated disassembly techniques with robotics can become a possible solution.
As Malaysia still is lagging behind in the global EV race, we have not yet found solutions to recycle these commodities. But the question now is: will we be ready to do it when the time comes?
Maybe taking a look at how we do it on a small scale in the form of phone batteries can give us an idea.
We are just a collection place
Malaysia’s e-waste recycling rate seems a bit more optimistic 25%, according to the Department of the Environment (DOE) in 2020. However, the actual number of recycled books themselves is not conclusive.
ERTH Founder Mohamed Tarek El-Fatatry told Vulcan Post that he unfortunately does not have this facility to decompose e-waste at this time.
Thus, in 2019, the e-waste recycling center donated used phone books to Nanyang University of Technology (NTU) in Singapore. They were used as test materials for the institution’s new device that could grind batteries and extract cobalt and lithium.
“They were able to recover up to 90% of the materials from the expired batteries and reuse them in new ones,” he shared.
Mohamed Tarek added that some local companies are collecting free books to export to Korea. But during the pandemic, this activity stopped. “Today we give our old books to amateurs trying to make solar storage systems from old batteries,” he said.
While Malaysia may only be an e-waste collector at this time, it offers opportunities for local businesses to grow in the battery life cycle management space. In addition, the electric vehicle manufacturers themselves could look for ways to recycle their own batteries, following the example of Tesla.
And as the authorities are still finalizing policies and infrastructure to house electric vehicles, it would be worthwhile to also establish the appropriate plans on how to dispose of the batteries 15 years on the road.
- You can read more articles we have written about electric vehicles here.