What is in an EV battery?
An EV battery is a lithium-ion battery; these can be found on smaller scales in laptops, cellphones, electric toothbrushes, electric bikes, and scooters.
Batteries are broken up into three parts according to
Materials Science and Engineering Educationat Washington University:
- An anode, the negative side of the battery
- Cathode, the positive side of the battery (Typically the more expensive part)
- Electrolytes transport ions between the anode and cathode so ionic conduction can be achieved
For a lithium-ion battery, a copper foil conductor is used in the anode, and an aluminum foil conductor in the cathode. In-between these are graphite mixed with binding agents on one side and lithium metal oxides on the other, the metal of which varies depending but can include:
The electrolytes for lithium-ion batteries are made up of lithium salt in a solvent. For new and healthy batteries, all of these are safe; however, once they get older lithium-ion batteries become a fire hazard making them difficult to dispose of or recycle.
How batteries are recycled and why it’s not working for EV batteries
Chemical Engineering News, there are just two ways lithium-ion batteries are currently being recycled, hydrometallurgy and pyrometallurgy.
Pyrometallurgy is essentially smelting.
Batteries are tossed into a furnace at 2732 degrees Fahrenheit and trace metals are recovered like cobalt, copper, and nickel. Nothing else gets recovered. Not only is it wasteful it releases toxic fluorine compounds fumes into the air, which the smelting companies have to take care of.
Hydrometallurgy, also known as chemical leaching, uses chemistry to “reclaim metals” and usually requires shredding the batteries to bits beforehand, which is labor intensive. However, this process can rescue a bit more, like lithium, and doesn’t use as much energy.
Current methods of recycling EV batteries waste most of the materials. Everything needed to create a new battery can be found within an old one, but neither method is currently efficient enough to recover enough materials to create a new battery.
Lithium-ion batteries are considered hazardous waste by the U.S. Department of Transportation and thus cannot be transported via plane or train and require special certification for truck drivers to handle. Batteries are currently shipped in UL-certified cardboard boxes.
These batteries that arrive for recycling also aren’t dead yet. Residual power remains within them that has to be removed before attempting any sort of recycling which wastes time and energy as well as is costly. But it’s necessary for safety.
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New ideas and solutions for EV battery recycling
With EVs being new, a lot of solutions for how to handle the impending onslaught of batteries needing to be recycled are still being devised. According to
Canary Media, about five new startups are tackling this issue.
For the transportation problem, KULR is taking what they made for space exploration and NASA to be used on the ground. They’ve created special envelopes to transport batteries without fear of them catching on fire.
Their envelopes offer to keep batteries cold up to 2.1 kilowatt-hours and are a bit like a pizza case but for chill. The carrying case is liquid-cooled fiber packaging and they’re hoping to up the kilowatt-hours to 10 so that EV battery packs can be transported easier.
For the batteries that aren’t 100% dead yet, Redwood has taken on that challenge by using the leftover energy to power a low-heat “Calcination process that removes the electrolytes from old cells.”
They plan to combine this energy conversion and recycling with hydrometallurgy in the hopes of extracting 95% of the EV battery's materials so that, in the future, they can make new parts in-house.
Ascend Elements, Li-Cycle, and ABTC are all testing new recycling methods.
Ascend Elements is making old cathodes new again by using a process their scientists have dubbed “hydro to cathode.” They shred batteries, put them in a solution, and extract the impurities leaving “the pure atomic state of the cathode.”
They plan to then recreate new cathodes to order based on the customer's wants and needs. They say by using electricity; they reduce the carbon footprint caused by making new batteries by 90% because they eliminate most of the mining process.
Li-Cycle throws the full battery pack into the shredder rather than wasting time separating them. To prevent fires, they use a solution to keep everything safe and it then allows them to recycle the plastic, aluminum, and copper, leaving only a “black mass” that they send off for hydrometallurgy.
American Battery Technology Company (ABTC) has taken the assembly machines and programmed them to disassemble the batteries with plans to chemically extract and harvest materials. They plan to take in 20,000 tonnes of batteries a year in the current plant.
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