Distributed Energy

The Battery Apocalypse

How will we manage battery waste?

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In the near-distant future, spent batteries could clutter the landscape. A primary focus of energy storage tech developers has been on engineering more power-dense and lighter weight lithium-ion batteries to power devices like laptops, cell phones, and electric vehicles. But it seems that little planning has gone into the product’s end of life, a circumstance that leaves many wondering how we will manage battery waste.

Adding to the equation, electric vehicle sales are on the rise, with the current US sales rate of 1% expected to reach 54% by 2040. Experts agree that this surge will contribute significantly to an already ominous battery waste problem.

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Today, as few as 5% of lithium-ion batteries are recycled, according to recent statistics. Ajay Kochhar, CEO of Canadian battery recycling startup Li-Cycle, told The Guardian that the increase in electric vehicle sales “could leave 11m tons of spent lithium-ion batteries in need of recycling between now and 2030.” It’s a problem that carmakers, materials experts, and entrepreneurs are working to solve.  

Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries use an intercalated lithium compound as one electrode material. The electrolyte carries positively charged lithium ions from the anode to the cathode and vice versa through a separator. While lithium is the magic dust that makes these batteries energy dense, it is also widely considered an unstable metal that can release toxic gases and pose certain safety risks. So what happens when a hybrid or electric car’s battery pack is damaged or wears out?

Today, individual cells are harvested from electric vehicle batteries and used to power smaller devices. For example, cells from Panasonic’s 18650 batteries, used in Tesla vehicles, can be reused in power tools and other electronics. Chevrolet explains that it uses old batteries as backup power at its GM data center.

Batteries can also be broken down through smelting. Metals like cobalt and nickel can be recovered fairly simply, but recuperating lithium proves challenging as it ends up in a mixed byproduct. Commercial smelting operations can reclaim lithium from the byproduct with additional processing, but these extra steps contribute significantly to the cost of recovery and can exceed the value of the recuperated metal.

“There still needs to be more development to get to closed-loop recycling where all materials are reclaimed,” Jessica Alsford, head of the Morgan Stanley’s global sustainable research team told The Guardian. “There’s a difference between being able to do something and it making economic sense.”

What suggestions do you have for handling lithium-ion battery waste? DE_bug_web

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  1. Since electric vehicles have become the, excuse the pun, the vehicle which will save the world from global warming, I have advocated that car owners should never own the battery: they should only lease it. Then, when on a long trip, we should just swop a discharged for a charged battery at a minimal cost and be on our way. In that way, once the batteries degrade to 80% efficiency, they are automatically switched to back up battery systems or for solar power collection. And built into the leasing fee, over the 10 to 15 years of the battery life is the eventual recycling fee.

    1. This is a fascinating idea! Thank you for sharing it here. My colleague, John Trotti, tells me that Paris taxis were electric in the 1890’s and swapped out batteries when they needed a fresh charge.

  2. Yvonne’s idea is excellent! If NASCAR crews can refuel a race car and change a tire in 12 seconds, surely we can figure out how to swap out automobile batteries in the time it takes for a normal gasoline fill-up.

  3. Yvonne, great idea, but here’s the problem with that. The batteries we are currently using, even though rechargeable, only have a certain shelf-life like anything else. They haven’t really begun to touch on the thousands of batteries that aren’t being recycled. The battery acid is a big concern environmentally. So for all you environmentalists, “Thank you!” You put the cart before the horse, and again reacted before you could resolve this major issue.

    1. Christina, thank you for sharing these insights. I agree that battery lifespan is important to consider. However, it seems that, in this context, the term “environmentalists” may be a sweeping (and perhaps unfair) generalization.

  4. Two points: First, getting EV market share from one per cent to 54 per cent is a tall order to be accomplished in 22 years. The price of the lithium-ion cell is going to have to drop by more than half. Not impossible, but extremely difficult. Second, the explosions of lithium batteries we’re seeing in landfills and disposal facilities isn’t caused by the auto industry. The biggest source by far of lithium battery waste is the electronic appliance sector. So, it’s ironic, therefore, that the most important research being conducted on lithium battery recycling is being done by a partnership between the auto industry and the US Department of Energy. The electronic appliance industry should get behind this important work.

  5. The first step is to stop them going into landfill. They contain acid and toxic gases and are highly flammable. Kerbside pickup days and making commercial outlets, that primarily sell battery devices, be required to have a safe collection point.
    If lithium is difficult to separate from other products then this is where the research is going to lie. Either that or the concept of batteries as we know them today will have to be very short lived as there are not huge known deposits of lithium.
    By the very nature of lithium’s flammability, research is already going into finding safer metals. A metal – vanadium is better known for its steel making properties is being tested as a better way to store energy for solar power. However separating the metal is proving to be a scientific challenge at this time.

  6. The last sentence of the article stated “There is a difference between being able to do something and it making economic sense.” Electric vehicles do not make economic sense unless part of the cost is transferred to taxpayers. Solar PV does not make economic sense unless part of the cost is transferred to taxpayers and people who do not have solar PV systems on their roofs. That is after 60 years of taxpayer funded research and development. I don’t understand the concept of transferring batteries that are no longer viable for automotive use and use them for solar energy storage. Should I assume that people with solar PV systems will accept used batteries for their energy storage? Perhaps the government should stop mandating what products so support with taxpayers’ money. If allowed to make their own decisions 320,000,000 citizens in the USA will determine what is economically viable.

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