This question has been difficult to research.
The short answer is that we don’t yet know.
My optimistic view is that if you buy a new EV now, it is highly likely that most of the battery will be recycled when it is retired in 2035.
Here is why.
One of the oft cited ideas is that car batteries will have a second life as energy storage systems for our electrical grid. Whilst this appears to be a nifty idea from an engineering perspective, I’m yet to be convinced that it will happen on a really large scale for these reasons:
- There is a real lack of standardisation in batteries. Each car model stores the batteries slightly differently making it a manual task to extract them.
- Secondly there will be a wide range in the quality of the batteries at the end of life. Some heavily degraded, others with low wear and tear. To re-use it is best if the batteries to have similar performance characteristics, which will require more manual testing.
- Thirdly, once the repurposed batteries reach the end of their second lives, we will need still need to figure out what to do with them.
Instead of discarding the old battery cells and digging into the earth for more minerals, we can extract those precious resources out of what’s already been made, similar to gold, silver and platinum recycling from old electronics.
Battery recovery recovery plants are already in operation and the metals are relatively easy to recover. The traditional method of melting the battery makes it possible to regain much of the copper, cobalt, nickel, lithium and manganese which make up 20–40 % of EV batteries.
A facility in Germany has managed to regain 71% of the battery by recovering metals and electrolyte. In future, we could theoretically reach 90% however there will always be some losses from the plastics and trace elements.
I’m optimistic about battery recovery given the sheer volume of precious metals that will be available. Experts believe that around 1.6 million metric tons of battery packs will be ripe for recycling by 2030.
These minerals will be available in the same countries where cars are manufactured, rather than in the ground on the other side of the globe. The enviromental benefits of recovery are significant — recycling 1 tonne of cobalt could save 5 tonnes of CO2.
One thing is obvious — batteries should be designed, from the start, with the end of life in mind. The good news is that the cradle-to-grave battery industry got a billion dollar boost earlier in the year.
So it’s all to play for.
The next time you drive a car, you could be sitting on a mine.