Building a Circular Economy to Support the EV Battery Crisis
According to the Zero- Emission Vehicles Factbook, 5.6 million EVs were sold this year alone, taking global ownership to a staggering 13 million vehicles. By 2030, under UK government plans, consumers will only be able to buy EVs or hybrid vehicles—a vital step in the fight against climate change. But there are two challenges that need addressing if the EV revolution is to avoid becoming a victim of its own success. The first is the shortage of mineral resources needed to manufacture EV batteries. The other—what to do with those batteries once they reach end-of-life.
As the world transitions to electric transport, so too do Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) values become increasingly recognised as fundamental to preventing further climate change and cutting carbon emissions. UBS predicts that electric vehicles will account for 40% of global new car sales by 2030 (1). This rapid shift to electrification and exponential growth in the market poses significant problems for battery manufacturers where the supply of mineral resources and battery end-of-life solutions are concerned. So, what currently happens to the batteries once they reach end-of-life?
According to the Chemical & Engineering News magazine, less than 5% of the metals that make up a lithium-ion battery (lithium, nickel, cobalt and copper) were recycled from end-of-life batteries in 2019 (2), and 18,000 tonnes of spent batteries are being incinerated each year in the UK alone. However, with the industry now under immense scrutiny over its ESG commitments, landfill and incineration are no longer considered ethical or viable solutions to the end-of-life battery problem. So, what is the solution?
One way for the UK to support this enormous rise in battery demand, and number of batteries reaching end-of-life, is by developing in-house commercial recycling technologies to keep resources in use for longer, minimise waste, and reduce the dangerous transportation of batteries. UK-based Technology Minerals Plc—a junior mining company for battery metals - in 2019 established Recyclus Group Ltd, in which it holds a 49% stake. Recyclus Group is a lithium-ion and lead-acid battery recycling business. The Group has developed the technologies to collect, recycle, and repurpose all five different Li-ion battery chemistries, as well as lead-acid batteries, to create the UK’s first circular economy for battery metals.
CEO of Technology Minerals Plc, Alex Stanbury, says:
There is clear demand building as a result of this quantum shift to electrification. We are focused on extracting raw materials required for lithium-ion batteries, whilst solving the ecological issue of spent Li-ion batteries, by recycling them for re-use by battery manufacturers. Recycling these batteries would recover non-renewable materials and reduce the cost of new batteries. Plus, the rare-earth metals in these Li-ion batteries pose a risk to the environment if they are not disposed of properly, making the case for recycling even more convincing.
Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG) places the average lifespan of a lithium-ion battery at 11 years, meaning that the volume of batteries coming to end-of-life is projected to be around 1.4 million packs per year by 2040 in the UK (3). With forecast shortages in key battery minerals on the horizon, and major manufacturers scrambling to secure long-term supply stability, there is a real concern that the road to electrification will be anything but plain sailing. It’s therefore becoming more and more evident that the recycling of end-of-life batteries is our best bet if we are to meet demand and address the impending bottleneck, to allow for the mass rollout of EVs.
Professor David Greenwood, director of Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG) at the University of Warwick, and CEO of the WMG centre High Value Manufacturing Catapult, says:
Whilst the UK industry has been remarkable in building a world class ecosystem supporting the development of our battery manufacturing capability, we must continue to innovate to capitalise on that success. In our September 2020 report, WMG highlighted that by 2040, UK automotive lithium-ion battery cell production alone will require 131,000 tonnes of cathodic metals. With the right infrastructure, recycling can supply 22% of this demand. This represents not only a positive environmental impact, but large savings for manufacturers that build the business case for increased battery recycling capabilities in the UK.
With less than nine years to go until sales of all new internal combustion engine cars are banned and replaced with EVs and hybrids, it’s time to get serious about the EV battery crisis, and recycling is the way forward if we are to address this elephant in the room.
1. UBS Global Research, ‘Electric Transport: Adoption sooner than expected’ (https://www.ubs.com/global/en/collections/sustainable-investing/latest/2021/trends-electric- transport.html)
2. Mitch Jacoby, ‘It’s time to get serious about recycling lithium-ion batteries’, Chemical & Engineering News vol.97, issue 28 (July 2019), p28
3. Warwick Manufacturing Group, Automotive Lithium-ion Battery Recycling in the UK (September 2020), p.4
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