The battery of an electric car
As the population is increasing, the carbon footprint is also growing. Every day, humans are finding different ways to reduce carbon emissions. One of their efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions is producing Electric Vehicles. Electric vehicles have been in the market for a long time, but their use was not expected until a few years ago.
The use of electric vehicles is pretty much every day these days. Unlike gasoline cars, they don’t use fossil fuels to work. Instead, they are powered by an electrical battery, which helps reduce the carbon dioxide emissions damaging the Earth.
The real question is, do they not produce carbon emissions at all? Although they don’t produce carbon emissions when being driven on the roads, they are generated when the batteries of these cars are manufactured and when they end their life cycle. So, the answer to that question is: No, these cars also produce carbon emissions.
However, that is a separate topic; maybe we will be technologized enough to eliminate CO2 emissions in the future. But for now, we have to recycle the batteries of electric vehicles when they come to the end of their life cycle, even if they produce emissions, especially lithium-ion batteries.
Why do we recycle these batteries?
Batteries are recycled because of multiple reasons. First, recycling helps to extract the raw materials from used batteries and forward them to manufacturing companies for reuse. In this way, the raw materials are not wasted and left to rot in landfills.
Recycling also brings down the costs of new batteries. When the raw materials used in manufacturing a battery are obtained by recycling, the cost of mining and buying new materials is cut down, which reduces the cost of manufacturing the battery.
Additionally, when batteries end up lying in landfills, they start to break down. After a few times, these batteries become corrupted or damaged, and they leak hazardous chemicals into the soil, making the surrounding ground very dangerous. Materials like cadmium, lead acid, and lithium-ion are among the most hazardous environmental pollutants; if not recycled properly, then they are more likely to end up on your dinner plate.
The materials used in these batteries, like lithium, nickel, lead, cobalt, etc., are non-renewable and expensive to mine. The increasing demand for batteries means more of these materials are in need. The mining process can release highly toxic chemicals into the air, and the miners in third-world countries work under dangerous conditions. Recycling your used batteries means saving resources and reducing the increasing need for these materials.
This is why recycling electric vehicle batteries and other batteries is essential.
The process of recycling electric vehicle batteries
Lithium-ion batteries are energy dense and are in the vast majority of electric cars and trucks. Cobalt, nickel, graphite, and manganese are also essential materials used in the battery. Cobalt is primarily the most important material used in making the battery, and it is one of the reasons why the battery is the costliest part of the electric car.
These metals are mostly mined overseas. For example, Australia and South America have vast lithium deposits, but today most of the mining takes place in places like Russia, Indonesia, and The Democratic Republic of Congo.
The number of electric vehicles on the roads is expected to rise upwards of 45 million by 2030, and the demand for battery minerals is predicted to surge. To reduce the need for new mining, experts say we should get better at recycling EV batteries when they die. While only a few batteries have been taken off the streets, millions have to be decommissioned in the following decades.
These batteries can fulfill a significant fraction of the demand for minerals to generate new ones in the future.
Break down of a battery
EV batteries are a complex piece of technology. They are constructed a bit like nested dolls. Mostly, the main pack holds several modules; each of these is constructed from numerous smaller cells. Inside each cell, the lithium atoms move through an electrolyte between a graphite anode and a cathode sheet of metal oxide. An electric current is generated as charged lithium-ions flow from the anode to the cathode. The metal usually defines batteries in the cathode. The three main types are iron-phosphate, nickel-cobalt-aluminum, and nickel-manganese-cobalt.
The valuable materials that recyclers want to extract are found in individual battery cells. Still, Ev batteries are designed to hold up for many years and thousands of miles and use, not to be deconstructed from their components. Partly, because of the complexity of the battery, the recycling processes are pretty crude.
After the battery is discarded, the outer layer is removed, and modules are often shredded and thrown in a furnace. Lithium and manganese burn and leave behind an alloy slurry with higher-value metals like cobalt, copper, and nickel. Unlike cobalt and nickel, lithium is not valuable enough for recyclers to recycle, and if it is recovered, its quality is not suitable for use in new batteries. There are three methods to extract other metals from the alloy slurry: Pyrometallurgy (also known as smelting), Hydrometallurgy, and Direct Recycling.
1): Pyrometallurgy or Smelting
It is a standard method of recycling lithium-ion batteries and nickel-metal hydride batteries. However, it is a resource-intensive process that only recovers 40 to 50 % of the battery’s material. It also produces greenhouse gases. These valuable metals and salts are then refined and used.
This method does not require the recycler to know the battery’s design, composition or even whether it s completely discharged to continue safely.
This process starts with shredding the cells, which allows the recovery of metals. Next, it involves dissolving ions in pools of acid solutions, producing a metal-laden soup. Finally, different metal salts are extracted from this solution through precipitation. As a result, it can recover around 95 % of the lithium-ion battery components.
This method involves chemicals that can cause health risks.
3): Direct Recycling
After shredding, batteries can also be recycled using natural recycling processes such as gravity separation, which can recover valuable materials without causing chemical changes. This method has enormous potential for economic and environmental reasons but has vast challenges.
Workers would first vacuum the electrolyte and shred battery cells in this method. Then, they would remove binders with heat or solvents and use a flotation technique to separate anode and cathode materials. At this stage, the cathode material resembles baby powder. So far, direct recycling methods have focused on single cells and yielded just tens of grams of cathode powders.
According to recycling researchers, effective battery recycling will require more than just technological advances. For example, the expensive costs of transporting combustible items long distances or within borders can discourage recycling. Moreover, they think that recycling will not be able to meet most of our battery metal demand as the industry is rapidly growing.
Recycling is just a strategy used to reduce the demand for new mining. Other approaches to declining demand for new mining could include developing batteries that use fewer minerals. However, even if recycling can meet one-third of our demand for minerals in the coming decades, we will still need more minerals for the ever-increasing industry of vehicles.
We should start considering new ideas in which we will not exploit the Earth much frequently and which will reduce carbon dioxide emissions. These resources are non-renewable, and we should not just use and throw them away. Instead, we should get as much out of them as we can and use them sustainably so that they are available for future generations.
Do you think it is necessary to recycle the batteries of electric vehicles?