Electric vehicles are expected to flood the highways of rich countries as car firms and governments commit to increasing their production. There are estimated to be 145 million on the road by 2030. While electric vehicles can help reduce emissions, they also have a potential environmental ticking bomb in the form of their batteries. Between now and 2030, more than 12 million tons of lithium-ion batteries are likely to be retired, according to one estimate.
These batteries not only require a vast number of raw materials, such as lithium, nickel, and cobalt, whose mining has climate, environmental, and human rights implications, but they also threaten to create a mountain of electronic garbage when they hit the end of their useful lives. Experts believe now is the time to prepare for batteries at the completion of their lives to lessen dependency on mining and maintain materials in circulation as the automobile industry transforms.
Millions of dollars are being poured into recycling firms and research centers in an attempt to figure out how to break down dead batteries and recover valuable metals on a large scale. However, according to James Pennington, the World Economic Forum’s circular economy program leader, recycling should not be the first option if we want to accomplish more with the materials we already have. “At first, the best way to do is keep things in usage for longer,” he advised.
“There has been a lot of [battery] capability left in electric vehicles at the conclusion of initial use,” said Jessika Richter, an environmental policy researcher at Lund University. These batteries would no longer be allowed to power automobiles, but they may be able to serve a second use by storing extra energy provided by wind or solar farms.
Several companies are conducting trials. In Melilla, Spain, the energy business Enel Group is deploying 90 Nissan Leaf batteries in an energy storage plant that is disconnected from the national grid. In the United Kingdom, the energy firm Powervault teamed up with Renault to provide retired batteries for household energy storage systems.
Enabling the flow of the lithium-ion batteries from their first use in electric vehicles to their second use in stationary power storage would have an additional benefit: it would eliminate the use of harmful lead-acid batteries. According to Fuller, lead-acid batteries only survive around two years in warmer locations because heat causes them to decay more quickly, necessitating frequent recycling. However, in Africa, there are few facilities capable of doing so securely.
Rather, these batteries are frequently split open and melted in backyards. The recycling process risks the recyclers and their environs to lead, a strong neurotoxin with no known safe level, and the potential to harm children’s brain development. Lithium-ion batteries, according to Fuller, could provide a less hazardous and longer-lasting energy storage option.