In 2022, global sales of EVs increased by 68% from the previous year to reach 7.8m, meaning almost 10% of car sales were electric. And reports suggest that by 2030, this number could quadruple. In the upcoming years, a significant increase in the number of electric vehicles (EVs) on the roads is expected as technology and consumer interest advances.
The European Union announced that all new cars and vans sold in the EU as of 2035 should be zero emission. It’ll be a game changer in reaching the 2050 emission reduction targets in the automotive industry. According to the EU, by 2030, there will be at least 30mn “zero-emission electric vehicles” on the road. This represents many advantages as EVs decrease greenhouse gas emissions. However, if not managed well, they also have environmentally negative consequences caused by their batteries.
Lithium batteries are considered the real innovation characterizing electric-powered vehicles. However, they face several limits due to the difficulties in procuring the needed materials, whose extraction presents social and political issues. The question now is, firstly, how lithium batteries are formed and produced. Secondly, will we be able to recycle them sustainably once they have reached the end of their useful life cycle?
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Battery supply chain: how is a lithium battery produced?
It can be argued that batteries represent the most innovative part of an EV, as the technology has faced many changes over the years. The first batteries used for automotive purposes were lead-acid batteries. Then, an intermediate solution was introduced based on nickel batteries for hybrid vehicles. In the early 2000s, Tesla manufactured the first battery for e-cars made of lithium. This innovation placed lithium-ion rechargeable batteries at the forefront for suppliers of power for induction motors. Initially, a lithium battery would be used mainly in electronic devices such as tablets, PCs, and smartphones (Sony was the first company to commercialize lithium-ion batteries in 1991).
A lithium-ion rechargeable battery is formed by different layers of chemical compounds, particularly Aluminium, Graphite, Nickel, and Copper, as shown in Figure 1 below.
A lithium battery is formed by four key components:
- A cathode, which determines the capacity and the voltage of the battery. It is formed by aluminum foil and lithium metal oxide.
- The anode, which enables the electric current to flow through an external circuit. It stores lithium ions when a battery is charged. The anode is formed by a graphite or carbon path and a copper foil.
- The electrolyte, the conduit of lithium ions between the cathode and the anode. It’s divided by the fourth element of the lithium battery:
- The separator, which is formed by a ceramic band and porous polyolefin film.
How a lithium-ion battery works. Graphic courtesy of Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute
LCA: Life cycle assessment of a lithium battery
Lithium-ion rechargeable batteries require an articulated process along the supply chain. Several actors collaborate in it to acquire the needed raw materials and to perform other production activities. However, among those activities, three are responsible for the entire battery value chain. They’re the production of electrodes, the assembly of the cells, and their treatment.
The supply chain of a battery starts with the procurement of raw materials (magnesium, lithium, copper, nickel). They’re available in the salty desert of South America, Africa, Australia, China, Bolivia, and the southern part of Portugal. The extraction of raw materials is a fundamental step and the main determinant of the cost of batteries. (The 75 kWh battery in a Tesla Model 3 costs $16,550.67.)
Mckinsey argues that the lithium demand for batteries will account for 95% of lithium demand. Lithium production will increase by 20% a year thanks to early-stage new players in the mining process (such as Western and Eastern Europe, Russia, and other members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)), new technology development, and proof of concepts.
After the extraction of raw materials, a refining phase is necessary to get the desired form and quality from each compound. In this phase, China has a secret weapon: it holds close to 80% of the production of cobalt chemicals, which it then can sell to the most important chemical industries such as CATL, BYD, BASF, Samsung, SK Innovation, and Panasonic (supplier of Tesla). They’re mostly based in Asian countries such as Japan, China, and Korea.
When the desired state of the material is obtained, the production of the cathode starts. Chemical companies take care of this process and the final steps of the supply chain to complete batteries on behalf of car manufacturers.
Car producers, such as Tesla and Volkswagen, are investing in developing adequate skills and competencies needed to produce internal batteries. In this way, the Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM) move back along the supply chain, positioning themselves in the cell production and module assembly of batteries. For example, Tesla is building a battery production industry in the U.S. and Europe. And Volkswagen has allocated large funds to create battery production plants. The most important plant is in Salzgitter, Germany, and will represent the largest fabric for electric vehicles in Europe.
Moreover, the specialization in previous phases of the supply chain will allow them to reduce transportation costs by inbounding more production activities. A decrease in transportation will generate a lower environmental impact and, consequently, zero-emission from electric vehicles in previous steps of the supply chain.
Finally, the most relevant step of the battery supply chain is recycling, for which car producers are developing advanced strategies. As soon as batteries reach the end of their life cycle, producers must find an efficient recycling method to give them a second life.
Nonetheless, the life cycle assessment of lithium-ion batteries presents several weaknesses. They include uncontrolled and unregulated lithium extraction in countries known for lack of labor rights and regulations, higher cost of transportation, and a low level of transparency along the process.
The challenge: sparking a second life through EV battery recycling and reusing
EV batteries have a tough life. In EV applications, lithium batteries typically have a designed life cycle of about ten years. However, due to the changing operating temperatures, hundreds of charging cycles, and the discharge rate, battery performance decreases after the first five years. One problem emerges: what can we do with the millions of EV batteries expected to be produced in the upcoming years?
After reaching the end of their useful first life, EV batteries can live a second (less-demanding) life. Manufacturers will have three options: disposal, reuse, and recycling.
Unlike regular cars, EV batteries are bigger and heavier. And they contain several hundred individual lithium-ion cells that must all be disassembled. As battery performance reaches an end, its green benefit fades.
Even though most regions are implementing regulations to prevent mass disposal, unfortunately, disposal is the most used method. Disposal occurs mostly when the batteries are damaged or located in areas without the required market infrastructure. When batteries end up in landfills, their cells can potentially release harmful toxins, including heavy metals.
One efficient way to give a second life to used batteries and keep the waste out of landfills is to reuse them as often as possible. According to McKinsey, markets that need less frequent battery cycling for a stationary battery energy storage system are the ones where reuse can be the most effective.
Firstly, as soon as batteries reach the end of their life cycle, they are sent to special storage points. An analysis phase begins here to check their efficiency level. Each battery receives a “second life” if it can offer some residual capacity.
Cell batteries will be disassembled for reuse if they can guarantee 70% of autonomy or more. They will be reused in mobile battery energy storage systems such as flexible fast-charging stations or charging robots. In this case, batteries act as a power bank and do not require the same performance as a car in terms of temperature stability and energy transfer. The capacity of batteries in stationary storage systems only decreases by 2% every year. In this way, the life of a single battery pack can be extended to almost double, up to 15 years.
Researchers are trying to foresee the best EV battery recycling options, as electric cars that have been produced until now have not yet reached their battery maximums life.
Instead of reusing them, if cell batteries have no residual capacity available, they are processed to be reinserted into the production process. EV battery recycling consists of three basic process types: pyrometallurgy (smelting), hydrometallurgy (leaching), and direct recycling (physical processes). These processes extract valuable materials. Also, in case the battery pack is damaged or is in a region without a proper market structure, it can be disposed of.
Innovating a lithium battery energy storage system
Many startups and companies have started tackling the increasingly important sustainable energy issue. More particularly, they’re shaping and innovating the rapidly evolving market of second-life applications for EV batteries. One such startup is BeePlanet Factory.
With the help of Plug and Play, BeePlanet Factory and Mercedes-Benz’s factory in Vitoria, Spain, have collaborated on a project to store energy in reused batteries of EVs. These batteries are still suitable for second-life applications but no longer meet the vehicle manufacturer’s requirements.
The project's goal was to create a proof-of-concept charging system for EVs highly independent of the electrical grid and other current infrastructure. This was made possible by installing photovoltaic panels on the roof of the Mercedes-Benz’s plant in Vitoria. This resulted in the first unit of a unique, sustainable battery energy storage system. It was carried out in only five months. And it’ll enable the factory to optimize and reuse its grid, which will reduce investments in the future.
Plug and Play is constantly on the lookout for innovative startups disrupting the space and works closely with companies focusing on the recycling of batteries, such as POSH, Redwood Materials, Gigamine, Li-cycle, Recyclico, and many others.
Recycling end of Life, or EoL, batteries is fundamental, and it’s expected to increase during the current decade. Still, specific actions need to be taken:
- Collection of EoL: must be improved through efficient transport solutions for safe reverse logistics.
- Transparency and traceability along the process: need to be improved through digital solutions, data sharing, and more standards and diagnosis protocols for quality EoL batteries for reuse, remanufacturing, or repurposing.
- KPI and specific or regional data sharing: should be available for decision-making and to decrease the carbon footprint of the recycling processes.
Automotive companies are responsible for EV battery recycling or disposal to generate a concrete carbon-neutral impact. They should start designing their product with recycling in mind to make it easier and faster to recover the cells and the materials.
Current methods for EV battery recycling and reusing are still mostly inefficient. It’s cheaper to produce new batteries than recover the cobalt and lithium from old ones. However, this is expected to change as companies and startups are increasingly tackling these issues as the popularity of EVs grows.