“The rate at which we’re growing the industry is absolutely scary,” says Paul Anderson from University of Birmingham. He’s talking about the market for electric cars in Europe. By 2030, the EU hopes that there will be 30 million electric cars on European roads.
The issue is receiving attention from scientific bodies such as the Faraday Institution, whose ReLiB project aims to optimise the recycling of EV batteries and make it as streamlined as possible.
“We imagine a more efficient, more cost-effective industry in future, instead of going through some of the processes that are available – and can be scaled up now – but are not terribly efficient,” says Dr Anderson, who is principal investigator for the project.
Currently, for example, much of the substance of a battery is reduced during the recycling process to what is called black mass – a mixture of lithium, manganese, cobalt and nickel – which needs further, energy-intensive processing to recover the materials in a usable form.
Manually dismantling fuel cells allows for more of these materials to be efficiently recovered, but brings problems of its own.
There are indeed powerful economic arguments for improving the recyclability of EV batteries – not least, the fact that many of the elements used are hard to come by in Europe and the UK.
“You’ve got the waste management problem on the one hand, but then on the flip side of that you’ve also got a great opportunity because obviously the UK doesn’t have indigenous supplies of many factory materials,” says Dr Harper.
“There’s a bit of lithium in Cornwall, but by and large we’ve got challenges in terms of sourcing the factory materials that we need.”
From a manufacturer’s point of view, therefore, recycling old batteries is the safest way to ensure a ready supply of new ones.
“We need to secure – as a manufacturer, as Europeans – the sourcing of these materials that are strategic for mobility and for the industry,” says Mr Hermine.
“We don’t have access to these materials outside of this recycling field – the end-of-life battery is the urban mining of Europe.”