Electric car battery recycling: what happens to the dead batteries?

October 05, 2022 by

The number of EVs on our roads will only continue to grow, but what happens to their batteries once electric cars come to the end of their lives?

When a petrol or diesel car reaches the point where it is no longer economically viable to run, there are protocols for dismantling and disposing of it, with these protocols having become established over the century or so that motor cars have been on our roads.

Electric cars represent a different proposition: their batteries contain chemicals and elements that have different handling and processing requirements to internal combustion engines, with the protocols required for these not being as established as those for petrol and diesel motors.

Here, we outline what happens to electric car batteries when they reach the end of their serviceable life.

Preface: EV batteries can outlive the cars they power

When mass production electric cars began to nibble away petrol and diesel sales, there were concerns in some quarters that their batteries would need regular replacement. Some looked at mobile phone batteries, which often experience significantly reduced performance after only a couple of years, and worried a similar paradigm might apply to EV power packs.

The reality has been fairly far from that, however: EV batteries do indeed degrade over time, holding less charge after several years than they did when new, but the rate of degradation is far less significant than was expected by some, with capacities dropping only by 2% or so each year in most cases.

And while there have been isolated cases of failing batteries, and they are expensive to replace when this happens, equivalent fates can befall petrol and diesel engines in rare instances – but snapped timing chains and the like haven’t prevented people from buying cars with internal engines. Car makers also offer lengthy EV powertrain warranties, with policies typically guaranteeing that these batteries will maintain 70% of their capacity for seven or eight years and 100,000 miles.

These are far lengthier warranties than the policies typically applied to the cars as a whole, and in many cases EV batteries will outlive the vehicles to which they are fitted.

It’s also worth noting that EV battery packs are made up of individual cells, and in some circumstances batteries can be repaired or have defective individual cells replaced, either by the manufacturer or an independent specialist (though the latter would most likely void any warranty that may remain).

EV batteries are made up of individual cells, which are themselves contained in packs

Okay, but what happens to EV batteries when a car is scrapped?

EV batteries can’t just be dumped in landfill and buried: the materials they comprise would not only be damaging for the environment, but are also worth too much money to simply be disposed of in this manner. Instead, two options are available.

1. EV battery second life

Once an electric car’s battery has reached the end of its serviceable life – which will most likely be because the car itself has reached the end of the road – its battery pack can find a new purpose, being removed from the vehicle and reused in a number of different deployments.

Nissan – an early pioneer of modern electric vehicles – was one of the first firms to investigate second lives for batteries in 2016, with 280 old Nissan Leaf battery packs providing 2.8 megaWatt hours of power to the Amsterdam ArenA – the home of Ajax Football Club. These batteries provide backup power for the stadium, and can help balance the local power grid, being designed to absorb renewable energy generated by wind and solar sources when demand is low, feeding the electricity back into the grid when needed.

Similar projects are planned or in place at various locations around the world, with Audi commencing a pilot project in 2021 that holds 60 EV batteries from Audi e-tron development vehicles, using these to store 4.5 megaWatt hours of energy from a hydroelectric facility.

These are only two examples of second-life projects, with more being developed all the time. Volkswagen has proposed using old EV batteries to power mobile recharging stations for electric cars, while an Indian-German startup announced in 2022 it plans to fit old batteries to electric rickshaws.

There is also the potential for old EV batteries to be installed in people’s homes, behaving in a similar way to Nissan’s Ajax programme, absorbing energy generated by renewable sources at night when demand is low, and feeding this back into the grid during the day when it is high.

2. EV battery recycling

An EV battery that has lost 30% or more of its original capacity may not be great for a car, but many second-life projects place lower demands on batteries, while in the stationary applications these projects tend to cater for, several different battery packs can be placed together to achieve the desired wattage and voltage.

Even so, though, there will come a point at which battery degradation means the cells cannot be used in a second-life project, while battery packs that have been damaged in a road traffic accident, for example, may not be suitable for reuse and will instead need to be recycled.

Volkswagen has already begun a project to do just this, opening a plant in Salzgitter, Germany, in 2021 with a view to recycling 90% of a battery’s raw materials. These materials include lithium, nickel, manganese and cobalt, which are expensive and time consuming to mine and process.

Pretty much all car companies that sell electric vehicles have plans or projects for reusing or recycling old batteries, while a number of third-party companies are also involved in these processes.

Old EV batteries: we’ve only just begun…

The first-generation Nissan Leaf arrived in 2011, with the Tesla Model S following the next year, so even the earliest mass-produced EVs are only just over a decade old, while EV sales have only recently made up a significant proportion of UK new-car sales.

The original Nissan Leaf of 2011 was one of the first mass-market electric cars

In 2018, for example, 15,474 new EVs were registered, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), making up just 0.7% of the market. Fast-forward to 2022, and in September alone 38,116 new electric cars found homes, making up 17% of the market.

Given SMMT figures show the average UK car is 8.4 years old, while cars tend to be around 14 years old before they are scrapped, it will be some time before large-scale second-life projects or recycling processes are required, giving firms a fair degree of breathing space to develop such programmes.

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