EV Batteries: To Reuse or To Recycle

EV Battery Forms and Use
There are five main kinds of batteries used in electric cars: lithium-ion, lithium-iron phosphate, nickel-metal hydride, lead-acid, and ultracapacitors. Lithium-ion batteries are the most predominantly used battery in all-electric vehicles (AEV) and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV) because of their high power-to-weight ratio, high energy efficiency, and high-temperature performance. They can travel further on a single charge and have a low “self-discharge” rate which means they hold a charge longer. They rely of nickel and cobalt which are expensive and scarce respectively. Most lithium-ion battery parts are recyclable. Still making up less than 10% of lithium-ion batteries, lithium-iron phosphate batteries are on the rise. Iron-dependent LFP batteries are less energy dense than nickel-rich cells, but the cathode material costs less, and iron is plentiful. Nickel-metal hydride batteries do not derive power from an external plug-in source, they rely on fuel to recharge which means they are used mostly in hybrid electric vehicles (HEV). They have a longer life cycle than lithium-ion and lead-acid, they are safe and durable, but they are expensive, have a high self-discharge rate, and they generate heat at high temperatures. Auto makers are choosing nickel-rich chemistries for longer-range or performance cars and LFP for entry-level models. Lead-acid batteries are high-powered, inexpensive, safe, and reliable, but they have a short life and a poor cold-temperature performance. For this reason, lead-acid batteries are used as a secondary energy source in electric vehicles. Ultracapacitors store polarized liquid between an electrode and an electrolyte. They help electrochemical batteries level their load and are used as a secondary source of energy to provide electric vehicles with additional energy during acceleration and regenerative braking.

End of Life, Recycle or Reuse?
The automotive industry is fast-evolving and with it rapid growth in manufacturing lithium-ion batteries for use in electric vehicles. With earlier developed EV batteries approaching the end-of-life, it is now increasingly important to address the economic, environmental, and strategic benefits of recycling and repurposing spent batteries and establish a circular economy.

By 2025, Nissan estimates tens of thousands of electric vehicles will contain end-of-service batteries. It is critical that these are recycled efficiently to counter the ongoing scarcities of essential raw materials and reduce the industry’s reliance on environmentally intensive mining for battery development. In addition, new innovations can rapidly extract valuable materials from existing battery packs and change the chemistries to ensure successful recycling to produce new electric vehicles.

As EV batteries reach end-of-service, they can still store at least 70% of their original capacity which can be repurposed for “second life” energy storage. Applications can include electrical grids and communications towers and energy storage for solar farms, wind farms, and other renewable sources. However, as manufacturers produce battery packs with varying mechanical and chemical complexities, one of the industry’s key challenges is achieving standardization across global manufacturers to enable repurposing initiatives.

Show Me the Money
Like our converter recycling program at United Catalyst Corporation, we believe that since recyclers purchase the vehicle they are entitled to the lion’s share of their value of the sale of its parts. EV batteries like scrap catalytic converters represent a more complicated sale than most auto parts. First, is the matter of safe handling and storage; second, is determining the battery’s state of health and value based on battery chemistry; third, is finding the most profitable customer. To date, resale of healthy batteries to consumers tends to bring the highest values. The recycler has some liability with its customer, the same as it can be with selling to an unvetted collector who may not be doing the right thing with the battery’s disposal. Historically, the next best option is selling to a second life integrator for reuse. Reuse has a lower environmental impact and can have a very high social impact. Think of children in countries like Africa that do not have enough energy to power a lightbulb to do their homework after school and work. A second life EV battery can provide energy to power light and pump clean water. Finally, recycling EV batteries can be an economic solution depending on the chemical make-up of the battery. Some elements have a positive rate of return, like lithium, nickel, and cobalt, while other elements have a negative rate of return and cost money to recycle. Not all EV batteries can be sold. Stockpiling valueless batteries could become an issue much the same as computer monitors containing CRT glass. It is going to be very important as inventory increases to understand EV batteries and choose reuse and recycling partners carefully ensuring responsible and profitable sales.

If you have questions about this article or any issue pertaining to the recovery of precious metals and materials from automotive recycling, we, at United Catalyst, are here to help you. United Catalyst Corporation is a processor of scrap catalytic converters, oxygen sensors, and EV batteries that offers global refining services. Our recycling solutions are accurate, scientific, and verifiable to get you the most money. United Catalyst is a processor you can trust.

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Becky Berube serves the recycling community as President of United Catalyst Corporation, is a Member of the Automotive Recycling Association’s Educational Programming Committee and is the Immediate Past President of the International Precious Metals Institute.