Electrifying our cars and energy storage must include plans for end of life batteries

Australia's delayed take up of electric vehicles could delay us developing a commercially viable and sustainable battery recycling industy.

The anticipated exponential increase in battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and battery storage systems over the next decade means lithium-ion battery recycling will become imperative if we're to get to net zero.

That's the view of Gavin Collis, a synthetic chemist from the CSIRO, who spoke to the SwitchedOn podcast.

“By 2030 we're going to have 11 million metric tons of lithium-ion batteries from EVs that aren’t being used,” says Collis. “That's a lot of end of life batteries that are going to have to be managed and processed in some way.”

With the push for net zero, there’s an increasing need to create circular and sustainable economies, ones which maximise the value of resources, and minimise waste.

Even though Australia has all the base metals for producing lithium-ion batteries - lithium, cobalt, nickel, and other critical minerals - the process of extracting raw materials uses a lot of energy, and generates a lot of waste. Lithium-ion batteries won’t be sustainable if they are only sourced them from raw materials.

“If you take something that's already been processed like a battery, that’s at the end of life, there's less energy that's required, less waste that's produced [when recycled]. So therefore that's actually beneficial towards reaching net zero.”

EV battery being dissembled (Source: Shutterstock)

But currently, Australia’s capacity for recycling lithium-ion batteries on a commercial scale is limited, in part because we have been slower than Europe and the US to embrace electric vehicles. We are generating less battery waste to justify the economies of scale needed for a local recycling industry.

“The slower we transition [from ICE vehicles to EVs], the less materials we'll have coming at end of life. And that will make it harder to do a recycling industry in Australia,” says Collis.

“The amount of material that you're likely to get to develop a sustainable recycling industry in Australia isn't there at the moment.”

Not every country will end up having a recycling capacity or capability. Collis believes neighbouring countries in the Asia Pacific region will have the same issue with what to do end of life batteries so a regional approach may be the best solution for Australia’s end of life batteries.

Whilst we currently don’t have the quantity of material needed to develop a sustainable recycling industry in Australia, we do have a growing industry in ‘black mass,’ which is created by crushing and shredding batteries.

Even though black mass contains all the battery chemicals and minerals, until recently it was regarded as just a waste material and shipped off overseas for processing.

“Within the last six years black mass has become a very hot commodity,” says Collis. “There are countries that do not have the mineral wealth that Australia has, and so for them to get into the battery supply chain, they're actually paying anywhere from between $5000 to $10,000 a ton for high quality black mass.”

Europe and the US have also increased their recycling targets.  

“In Europe they're looking at, by 2040, 70% of recycled materials going into batteries,” says Collis.

The Inflation Reduction Act in the US also provides incentives for American automakers to produce electric vehicles locally, and to use recycled materials in their next generation batteries.

Collis says that a sustainable recycling industry needs some way of keeping track of batteries throughout their life cycle, and this could be achieved with a battery passport, which would be attached to a battery when it is created.

Collis believes a battery passport would help ensure materials are ethically and sustainably sourced, and at the other end of the supply chain, enable recycling companies to know exactly what chemicals have been used in the battery, and its usage history, which is imperative for sorting materials at scale.

“You currently can't do that easily. And that really impacts the efficiency of recycling.”

A battery from an electric vehicle that reaches end of life generally still has around 80% state of health. Whilst there are attempts now to give these batteries a second life as stationary storage for homes, Collis thinks battery chemistry could be very different in 10 years and we may have smaller, more efficient and more powerful batteries.

Rather than giving a battery a second life, it may be more productive to pull the materials out of an old battery to create the next generation of batteries.

You can hear the full interview with Gavin Collis on the SwitchedOn podcast here.

You can read Gavin Collis’s article on lithium-ion battery recycling here.

Anne Delaney
SwitchedOn Editor
March 4, 2024
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