EV Battery Recycling: Beyond End-of-Life Applications

When Ultium Cells LLC starts building Ultium batteries for upcoming General Motors electric vehicles in this Spring Hill, Tenn. factory, a partnership with Li-Cycle will ensure scrap materials from the production process do not go to waste. (General Motors)

Global automakers are rapidly executing plans to electrify their vehicle lineups and build millions of zero-emission vehicles to alleviate climate change. However, concerns remain about the long-term environmental effects over the entire lifecycle of an electric vehicle, from mining the raw materials and manufacturing the batteries to recycling the components at the end of their useful life.

Of particular concern is an EV’s battery pack. According to one expert, the current recycling rate for all lithium-ion batteries is just 5%. Proposed legislation in the U.S. and Europe aims to change this rate of recycling. If the proposals become law, they would ensure that chemical-heavy EV batteries don’t go into landfills where they would leach toxic materials into the environment and pose fire and burn threats.

Car companies are not waiting for regulators to act. From sourcing the raw materials required to build the battery to reusing and recycling the battery after the car has reached the end of its life, automakers are striving to create an end-to-end sustainable process to minimize an EV’s environmental impact to the greatest extent possible.

For example, Ultium Cells LLC is a joint venture by General Motors and LG Energy Solution. It has announced a partnership with Li-Cycle to recycle and reuse up to 100% of the leftover materials from the production of its Ultium batteries. This situation is different from recycling batteries at the end of the vehicle’s lifecycle. This recycling effort is related to new battery production.

“Our combined efforts with Ultium Cells will be instrumental in redirecting battery manufacturing scrap from landfills and returning a substantial amount of valuable battery-grade materials back into the battery supply chain,” said Ajay Kochhar, Li-Cycle’s president, CEO, and co-founder. “This partnership is a critical step forward in advancing our proven lithium-ion resource recovery technology as a more sustainable alternative to mining.”

To manufacture EV batteries, automakers use aluminum, cobalt, copper, graphite, manganese, nickel, and lithium. Ultium Cells’ partnership with Li-Cycle will gather leftover remnants of these materials and use them to make new automotive batteries or batteries in other industries. Furthermore, the agreement calls for a new hydrometallurgical recycling process that generates 30% fewer emissions than existing pyrometallurgical recycling.

GM says it has reused or recycled every EV battery received from customers since 2013. When current GM EVs require battery replacement, GM uses a refurbished battery. The new Ultium battery packs, which will debut in the upcoming Cadillac Lyriq, GMC Hummer EV, and other models, are even easier to reuse because of their modular nature.

Other carmakers are also ensuring that EV batteries or their inner materials have a second life. For example, owners of Volvo plug-in hybrid electric and fully electric vehicles that use a lithium-ion battery can contact the automaker if the vehicle is no longer usable. Volvo will meet the owner and pick up the battery at no cost, taking it away to be recycled or reused. Volvo, which engineers its EV batteries for 15 years of use, plans to repurpose used EV batteries as power storage at charging stations in Sweden.

Nissan also has detailed plans for reusing, recycling, and reselling the batteries from the Leaf, which serves as the blueprint for handling all batteries from the company’s electrified vehicle lineup in the future. Tesla claims that, even after its batteries can no longer be of service, they are 100% recycled.

Marketing electric vehicles as an eco-friendly transportation solution requires a holistic approach to recycling and implementing best practices to make the entire lifecycle of an EV sustainable. Otherwise, a savvy and scrutinizing public may remain wary of this still-new technology.