Electric transportation plays a significant role in solving the global warming crisis, however, even technology has to pay a significant price. Lithium-ion batteries or li-ion batteries that are used to power electric vehicles (EVs) are made from metals that are obtained at serious environmental conditions and human toll. Obviously, these batteries do not last forever and when they die, they certainly contribute to the tens of millions of tons of electronics waste adding up as e-waste in landfills worldwide.
This is where the need to develop advanced technologies comes up in order to recycle Li-ion batteries, thereby scaling up the entire recycling infrastructure, noted a team of researchers at the University of Birmingham.
The research states that around one million electric vehicles were sold in 2017 across the world, which will result in 250,000 tons of battery waste that the current recycling infrastructure is incapable of handling. A single battery can power an EV for up to 20 years, but once it’s dead, it can add up to the ever-growing pile of e-waste in landfills.
Gavin Harper, a research fellow at the University of Birmingham’s Faraday Institution and the lead author of the study said, “It is crucial to foresee issues before they happen,” adding, “If these waste management problems aren’t addressed, it could add up to the already piling waste mountains.”
In their paper, Harper and his associates outlined what an efficient waste management infrastructure would look like for li-ion batteries in EV, which contains metals like cobalt, manganese, and copper. The first move at managing waste begins with extending the life of li-ion batteries as much as possible, similar to consumer electronics. At the point they become incapable of fueling an EV, they can be reused for other energy storage purposes such as home batteries–a concept that companies across the world are already working on.
At one point, even the life of EV batteries will come to an end, after which they need to be recycled. Harper said that the recycling process involves heating the batteries to melt it down to slag, followed by chemical separation procedures to recover certain metals such as cobalt. However, these pyro and hydro-metallurgical techniques require thorough heating and produce harmful toxic gases as byproducts. Besides, the metals that are recovered in the chemical separation process are often low quality.
An alternative way to recycling is where cathodes are refurbished for use in new EV batteries without indulging in the chemical separation process. Another possibility is that the so-called biomining microbes can be harnessed that produce acids to separate metals from rocks – a concept that researchers are hoping to apply in asteroid mining.
In any case, these techniques come with certain hurdles that require scaling up, including the complexity and the overall cost of recycling and the many hurdles of dealing with li-ion batteries that run on high voltages and can even electrocute the person doing the disassembly. These batteries can release toxic gases and even explode if they are subjected to overheating.
Keeping the challenges at limelight, it is important to figure out how to overcome them. According to a report by Earthworks, easily-accessible supplies of battery metals are easily being depleted. Lithium demand is anticipated to exceed current production rates from mines as early as 2022. Besides, the demand for cobalt is projected to exceed known planetary reserves by 2050.
Perhaps then the millions of tons of waste piled up in landfills will start to look pretty appealing.