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AS CITED IN SAE INTERNATIONAL’S Automotive Engineering, October 2022, “Recycling battery materials is vital to the electric-vehicle future, but the way forward faces a host of hurdles.”
Jim Motavalli describes the challenge: “Development of a robust electric vehicle (EV) battery recycling industry has moved from a net-positive sideline to a necessity as automakers, and their suppliers, transition away from internal combustion. Experts say that global mining operations are simply not on track to produce the virgin raw materials needed to meet the dramatic ramping up of the world’s battery production. Additionally, the sourcing of these materials raises numerous red flags in terms of conditions for workers, site pollution, geopolitical complications and concentration of ownership.”
Here are tidbits about these crucial aspects.
Problematic Materials. Motavalli writes, “One key aspect of the looming materials problem is in the need for nickel, which often gets overlooked as the focus is on lithium and, to a lesser extent, on cobalt.”
For EVs to thrive, the nickel industry “would have to more than double worldwide production—unless recycling was a factor.”
Politics is a factor as well: Motavalli notes, “Complicating the nickel supply is the disruption of the Russia-Ukraine war. Russia is the third-largest global nickel supplier, and in the first quarter of 2022 prices doubled to $100,000 per ton on potential disruption fears.”
What’s more, Motavalli says, “Nickel is only one of the problematic metals that make up today’s li-ion batteries—which are still the state of the art, at least until production-ready solid-state batteries (without liquid electrolyte) are available.”
Complex Supply Issues. As examples of complex supply issues, Motavalli observes, “Lithium is heavily sourced through evaporation processes in arid basins in Chile, Argentina and Bolivia,” where the practice “contributes to the ecological damage of internationally recognized wetlands and protected areas, where water resources are already exhausted for local and indigenous peoples.”
Motavalli continues, “More than 70% of the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where there are severe child labor issues (up to 40% of the cobalt work force), ongoing human rights abuses and horrendous working conditions with minimal safety.”
Adding to this, Motavalli notes, “Like lithium, cobalt is mostly refined in China, and Chinese companies, operating through the massive ‘Belt and Road’ international development initiative, own or have financed major stakes in lithium and cobalt mines—including 80% of the cobalt in the DRC, reports GlobalEDGE.”
The average metal atom travels 50,000 miles from the mine before it’s used in an EV battery pack.
The Importance of Recycling. Motavalli reports, “More sustainable lithium mining, including a U.S. domestic supply, is under development, but recovering the metal from used EVs is a proven process.”
“A ton of battery-grade lithium,” he continues, “can be produced from 250 tons of ore and 750 tons of brine, or from just 28 tons of used lithium-ion batteries, the U.S. Dept. of Energy (DoE) said. The only problem is that less than 5% of battery lithium was being recovered in 2019, said DoE. But the industry is growing fast.”
Closing the Loop. Argonne National Laboratory has a ReCell R&D Center. It describes one option involving battery recycling.
Other options are secondary use (e.g., arrays of batteries as stationary energy storage) or refurbishing (in a sense, the analogue of rebuilt internal-combustion engines). A specialist told Motavalli “We don’t know where the market will go.”
A single path need not be the case: Motavalli quotes Melissa Flaherty, director of sustainable EV battery systems at GM: “Since 2013, GM has recycled or reused all the packs it gets from customers, including those replaced under warranties.”
New Technology? Motavalli notes, “If future EV batteries contain far less cobalt, nickel and other metals than they do now, will recycling still be economically viable?” Certainly with lithium prices soaring—they’re up 400 percent in China this year—recycling will remain crucial. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2022