Batteries! This word either excites or infuriates you; it depends on whether you see the future of transport as electric or combustion-fuelled. One key argument for batteries is that they are vital for storing renewable energy to be used when needed: critical for lowering carbon emissions in the battle against climate change. However, their ability to make transport sustainable through electric vehicles has had the automotive industry in a tug-of-war. But why?
You’re probably well aware that combustion vehicles are being banned across Europe from around 2030. Electric Vehicles (EVs) are quickly being pushed to replace combustion for a “clean” future. In fact, if all of Europe’s policy decisions came true, there would be 35 million EVs on the road by 2030! But this could be pretty problematic. Firstly, batteries have a pretty high manufacturing carbon footprint. Secondly, they consume some scarce and expensive resources such as cobalt. The industry understands the problem of batteries quite well and is well underway to produce lower impact batteries. But! What if I told you that lower impact batteries BREAK recycling?
See, when EV batteries reach their end-of-life, they are to be recycled. Recycling recovers battery materials that are still useful and can be put back into new batteries or products. This is good for the environment as it saves us from producing more raw material. More importantly, it is also good because despite recycling having costs, the avoidance of needing raw materials saves costs more! In a world driven mainly by economics, cost savings are the paths of least resistance for the industry. Recycling is good. But actually pretty bad for the lower impact batteries…
For lower impact batteries, the industry’s key strategy is to design batteries that remove resources such as cobalt. Recall that these resources are also expensive, so removing them also means lower impact batteries are cheaper. But when these batteries reach their end-of-life because they have lower value, the cost savings from recovering their materials are lower than the cost required for recycling.
According to one paper, the recycling of high-cobalt batteries (NMC111) has cost savings of around 6% to 27%. However, lower-cobalt batteries (NMC811) can increase costs by 5%. In a recent Faraday Battery Challenge conference, Imperial College London found that Lithium Iron Phosphate - batteries that remove ALL precious materials – when recycled, increase costs beyond 5%... So, there is a bit of a problem. The industry moving towards lower impact and inexpensive batteries mean that it becomes more economical to get rid of batteries rather than recycle them. From a sustainability point of view, that is pretty bad.
Unless European governments are planning to enforce strict legislation or subsidies for battery recycling, what’s going to happen to the potential 35 million EV worth of batteries? Will we ship them over to Africa to deal with as we’ve done so in the past? Or will we start to reconsider the design of batteries to make them WANT to be recycled? As with all industries, reactive approaches to politics and economics can have catastrophic impacts that collect their debt later. The automotive industry in particular, needs proactive strategies that consider not only volatile politics and economics but the future problems that decisions can create. It is only in the holistic approach that transport can secure a future that is environmentally sustainable, economically thriving, and socially just.