When it comes to the end of the line for your electric vehicle’s (EV) battery pack, concerns often arise about its disposal. After all, we’ve been taught not to simply toss small batteries in the trash, so what becomes of these hefty EV packs that can weigh hundreds of pounds? Do they find their way to landfills? Fortunately, there’s a systematic process in place to handle these retired batteries, mirroring the responsible disposal of smaller high-voltage battery packs found in hybrids like the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight.
Rather than relegating these batteries to landfills, auto recyclers, now referred to as businesses, send them to specialized firms. These experts meticulously dismantle the packs, separating wires, circuitry, plastics, and the actual cells. The cells and circuits are crushed to extract and purify various metals within, including valuable materials like nickel and lithium. Toyota, with its substantial presence in the hybrid market, has set up notable collection programs to ensure responsible disposal.
While EV batteries dwarf their hybrid counterparts in energy capacity, their recycling process is remarkably similar. These battery packs are shipped to specialized facilities focused on disassembling and recycling their components. Some parts, such as steel, copper, and aluminum, enter the nationwide metals-recycling stream, while plastics, although not always recyclable, constitute a small fraction of the total battery content.
The real treasure lies within the cells themselves, housing coveted elements like lithium, cobalt, manganese, nickel, and, to a lesser extent, aluminum. Grinding up these cells initiates a purification process, yielding a valuable supply of these sought-after metals. Recycling plays a pivotal role in various industries, including automobiles, where materials like steel and aluminum are typically recycled at the end of a vehicle’s life. However, EVs stand out due to their battery metals.
In 2017, JB Straubel, a tech entrepreneur with ties to Tesla, launched Redwood Materials, a battery-recycling and supply startup. It aimed to address the growing need for recycling EV batteries. Redwood’s primary challenge was sourcing an adequate supply of used EV batteries. Collaborations with automakers and government support, like a $2 billion loan from the U.S. Department of Energy, have been pivotal in its growth.
As for the notion of a “second life” for used EV batteries, it hasn’t gained substantial traction. While automakers initiated demonstration projects and some energy-storage installations utilizing retired packs exist, customers generally prefer new cells over a diverse array of used ones with uncertain usage history. This preference stems from the fact that new cells are now significantly cheaper.
The future of EV battery recycling looks promising due to the valuable metals within these batteries, especially as global demand for batteries surges. With new mining ventures requiring extensive setup time, recycling used batteries offers a sustainable source of these metals, already extracted and readily available. Furthermore, the Inflation Reduction Act supports U.S. battery production, with subsidies applicable to vehicles using minerals sourced from certain countries, including the U.S.
Fundamentally, consumers should not worry about the disposal of their EV’s battery pack when it reaches its end of life. Chances are it will be responsibly collected, broken down into its essential components, and these fundamental elements will find their way back into the production of future batteries, potentially powering your next EV.