Recycling for lithium ion batteries (LIBs) is not keeping pace with the rapid rise of electric vehicles, storing up a potentially huge waste problem for the future, a new study has warned.
A review of lithium ion battery recycling led by the University of Birmingham suggests that, while electric vehicles (EVs) offer a solution for cutting pollution, governments and industry need to act now to develop recycling infrastructure to meet future recycling need.
Lead author of the review, Dr Gavin Harper, Faraday Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham, said: “The recycling challenge is not straightforward. There is enormous variety in the chemistries, shapes and designs of lithium ion batteries used in EVs. Individual cells are formed into modules, which are then assembled into battery packs. To recycle these efficiently, they must be disassembled and the resulting waste streams separated. As well as lithium, these batteries contain a number of other valuable metals, such as cobalt, nickel and manganese, and there is the potential to improve the processes which are currently used to recover these for reuse.”
The study was carried out in collaboration with researchers at the universities of Newcastle and Leicester
Professor Andrew Abbott, of the University of Leicester and co-author on the paper, said: “Electrification of just 2% of the current global car fleet would represent a line of cars that could stretch around the circumference of the Earth – some 140 million vehicles. Landfill is clearly not an option for this amount of waste. Finding ways to recycle EV batteries will not only avoid a huge burden on landfill, it will also help us secure the supply of critical materials, such as cobalt and lithium, that surely hold the key to a sustainable automotive industry.”
“These batteries contain huge amounts of power and at the moment we are still relatively unprepared about how we deal with them when they reach the end of their life,” explained co-author Professor Paul Christensen, of Newcastle University, who is also working with a number of UK Fire and Rescue Services on developing protocols for dealing with lithium ion battery fires.
“One of the areas of research for this project is to look at automation and how we can safely and efficiently dismantle spent batteries and recover the valuable materials such as lithium and cobalt. But there’s also a public safety issue that needs addressing as second-life EV batteries become more widely available. What we need is an urgent look at the whole lifecycle of the battery – from digging the materials out of the ground to disposing of them again at the end.”