The automotive industry is on a fast track to clean up its act. Electric vehicles (EVs) are viewed by many as the future of automotive and while the elimination of tailpipe emissions is undoubtedly a major step forward, important questions remain. To become truly circular, automakers will need to develop a plan to prevent EV batteries from going to landfill. How exactly they should go about achieving this remains the subject of considerable debate.
While much of the discussion around circularity revolves around the business of how to recycle EV batteries, there are, arguably, more immediate questions to be addressed, such as how to maximise the longevity of EV batteries and the value that can be yielded from them over their lifetime. By investing all its time and attention into solving the recycling question, the industry risks ignoring or neglecting other avenues that could prove more impactful towards its sustainability goals.
The current state of EV battery recycling
Data shows that the global EV battery recycling market surpassed US$2.1bn in 2022, with this figure expected to reach as high as US$19bn by 2030. The environmental impact of sourcing the materials used to create EV batteries is substantial, therefore one might logically assume that recycling is the optimal way to recoup maximum value from the materials used. At a minimum, if the industry recycles the materials within EV batteries, then surely the aforementioned environmental cost of sourcing them, combined with the additional cost of producing the batteries themselves will not have been in vain? Most people would tend to agree with this position and yet, this viewpoint speaks to the prevailing view that recycling holds the key to achieving circularity goals.
While much of the discussion around circularity revolves around the business of how to recycle EV batteries, there are, arguably, more immediate questions to be addressed
Although recycling does indeed play an important part within this journey, its importance should not be overstated at the expense of other demonstrably more effective measures which should take precedence. As things currently stand, there is a very real danger that bias towards recycling is causing large quantities of EV batteries to be prematurely recycled when in fact they have much more to offer.
The hidden cost of recycling
Data from Autocraft EV Solutions highlights the inefficiency of current recycling processes. If the environmental cost of producing EV batteries is high, recycling is only somewhat better, generating approximately 53% of the electricity, consuming 14% of the water and emitting 59% of the CO2 required to produce a new battery. These figures put the true impact of recycling into perspective.
According to the waste management hierarchy framework, preventing waste in the first instance is the best way to yield the maximum environmental benefit. As things currently stand, the automotive industry could be accused of overlooking this important step or at the very least, not giving it the investment it deserves. This begs the question, why is this the case?
Remanufacturing and its role in waste reduction
Supply chain constraints, combined with the well-publicised environmental impact of producing new EV batteries, should prompt a serious rethink about how the automotive industry positions itself to truly unlock the environmental and performance impact of EVs. Remanufacturing offers a solution to this challenge, with major advancements in EV battery testing and repair providing a potentially ground-breaking avenue to achieve its goals. Awareness levels about what can be achieved through remanufacturing, nonetheless, remain low. Misconceptions around remanufacturing also continue to hamper progress on this front.
For instance, it is now possible to identify battery faults at a cellular level, meaning that the affected area can be targeted. This represents a far superior alternative to replacing the battery altogether and data illustrates the value of such an approach. Repairing a single battery module uses a tiny fraction of the electricity and water (3.2% and 2.8%, respectively) required to produce a virgin pack, while emitting a mere 2.9% of the amount of carbon.
Interventions of this kind can be undertaken at regular intervals throughout the life of each battery to proactively address causes of battery faults, even before they have occurred. The value here is that premature decline can be halted by reversing the effects of cyclical ageing, which ensures that batteries perform at the optimum level for where they are at within their lifecycle. Only when all avenues to maximise battery life through repair and remanufacture have been exhausted should the possibility of recycling be considered.
Giving EV batteries a second chance.
Even when EV batteries no longer meet the required standards for use within automotive, it is still vital to explore ways to derive further value before recycling them. Power-walls, static storage, and marine conversions are just a few of the opportunities to transition remanufactured packs and modules once they have been deemed unsuitable for their original purpose. This way, the packs are still operational in some form or another, and the longer they remain in use, the greater the value they provide to offset the environmental cost of producing them.
There is a very real danger that bias towards recycling is causing large quantities of EV batteries to be prematurely recycled when in fact they have much more to offer
The road to circularity
There is no perfect solution when it comes to achieving optimal sustainability outcomes within the EV sector. That said, remanufacturing and repair represents arguably the best available route to unlocking the environmental and performance benefits of EVs. A multi-faceted approach is required to achieve true circularity and if the industry remains on its current trajectory, it stands to miss out on the untapped environmental and financial potential that can be achieved from maximising the life of its EV batteries
EV battery recycling is an important issue for the automotive industry and efforts to streamline processes to become more efficient and less wasteful are a good thing. That said, this should not distract from the wider aim to extract every last bit of value from EVs by restoring performance and maximising longevity through repair and remanufacture. An integrated approach to circularity is needed and perhaps it is time that the industry embraced a remanufacturing-first mindset instead of defaulting to recycling because it is the more familiar option. The future success of EVs, and their position as an environmentally-friendly alternative to internal combustion engines, may depend on it.
About the author: Sara Ridley is Engineering and Quality Director at Autocraft EV Solutions