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With an estimate of more than two billion motor vehicles on road in 2020 consuming around 11 billion tonnes of fuel every year , it won't be hypothetical to say that in the coming years our world might run out of conventional fuels, in addition to the present threat of pollution caused when these vehicles burn tonnes of carbon fuel. Electric vehicles have evolved into a much efficient and sophisticated alternative to the conventional internal combustion engines and also have a significant advantage of low carbon emission.
According to the ING experts, in the coming 15 years, European roads will be full of vehicles powered by alternative fuels rather than internal combustion engines . But as earth inches closer towards the exhaustion of various resources just opting electric vehicles won't suffice.
The efficiency of electric vehicles depends on their batteries. Some of the energy storage systems used in electric vehicles (EVs) are Lithium-Ion Batteries (LIBs), Nickel-Metal Hydride Batteries, Lead-Acid Batteries, and Sodium-Nickel Chloride Batteries. The most widely used batteries in electric vehicles are LIBs.
According to the Bloomberg New Energy Finance forecast, 2040 will see a boom of electric cars to at least 41 million in number . Such an increased number of EVs will lead to an increase in the environmental challenge of a growing number of used batteries, once they are off from vehicles. They may also endanger the health and environment if disposed-off improperly. Besides, manufacturing these batteries require metals which are expensive and scarce in supply. To cope up with the challenge, effective battery recycling, with the idea of recovering the maximum amount of reusable resources while consuming the minimum amount of energy, is the need of the hour.
RE-USE OF BATTERIES
In general, a battery from an electric vehicle lasts effectively for 8-10 years, until it degrades to around 80% of its primary capacity. It can then be either reused or recycled. Reusing or re-manufacturing gives the battery a second life. Though being rendered inefficient for a vehicle, they can still be used for application cases as stationary (e.g. home storage from PV panels), semi-stationary (e.g. power for construction sites), or mobile (e.g. reuse in scooters or golf cars) (Rehme et al., 2016). According to a few researchers, reusing a battery before recycling is a better way of utilizing it to its complete potential before ripping it off for its components for recycling. Re-purposing of EV batteries and using them in a second life, can extend their lifetime and contribute to the economic value by distributing the high initial cost of batteries among many users.
However, in actuality, the majority of these batteries end up in landfills. Landfill is a dangerous process since the irreversibly damaged batteries could contaminate the soil and groundwater due to electrolyte and metals leaching. Besides, they could release toxic gases and ignite a fire if they are dampened while underground. Hence, recycling is always preferred and also a necessity, keeping in view the environmental aspects.
RECYCLING OF BATTERIES
Lithium-Ion batteries are in higher demand around the world market due to the increase in the number of electric vehicles. The primary objective of recycling the EV batteries is to recover as many constituents as possible in the most useful condition, taking care of economic and environmental aspects. LIB has four key components, namely Cobalt, Nickel, Aluminium Oxides, and Lithium. These four components have an economic significance which provides a considerable incentive for recycling (Romare and Dahllöf, 2017). But the economic aspects of recycling batteries also depends on the number of batteries recycled. In the present scenario, technological advancements are not efficient enough for feasible retrieval of the above-mentioned materials. The constituent elements are generally rare, posing a threat of depletion, and also have a fluctuating price in the market creating uncertainty for depreciation in battery prices in the future.
The process of recycling a LIB is comparatively expensive than recycling other types of batteries. There are several processes for recycling the EV batteries. However, no route can be considered ideal. After the initial sorting, discharging, and dismantling of batteries, they are pre-treated to segregate valuable materials. Two basic metal extraction recycling process includes - pyrometallurgy and hydrometallurgy. Pyrometallurgical Process involves high temperatures to recover cobalt, nickel, copper, and iron while lithium and manganese are generally lost. The hydrometallurgical process uses chemicals to produce a mixture of ionic species which can separate and recover cathodic metals (Friedrich et al., 2017). The most common is a combination of the two processes.
Most cathodes of LIBs contain cobalt, which is a by-product of copper and nickel production in numerous deposits across the globe, but majorly concentrated in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The political instability of DRC is one of the reasons for the instability in the supply and also a rapid increase in the rate of cobalt in the global market. From the year 2016 to 2018, the price of cobalt in the global market has quadrupled (LME, 2018a). Nickel too is a key component of LIBs and is used in the highest quantity in Lithium-Ion Cathodes. As the number of electric vehicles on roads has increased so the demand for nickel soared. Since 2016, there has been a significant increase in the price of nickel, and the trend is deemed to continue (LME, 2018a).
Aluminium casings are used in the majority of batteries for carrying the battery cells. The amount of aluminium used in a battery is substantially greater when compared to other materials. The rise in the price of aluminium will be in direct proportion to the number of electric vehicles being produced. The price of aluminium had been always fluctuating but the rise has been far more than the dips on pricing charts and this poses an adverse effect on pricing the electric vehicles in the budget. Lithium is the last one of the four key elements and is in high demand. Particularly the Lithium carbonate use in LIBs is specified in the highest demand. It has been predicted that by 2025 demand for Lithium Carbonate Equivalent shall triple what it was in 2017 (Roskill, 2017).
Considering the rise in demand and the price of these materials, recycling seems to be the only way to curb the price soar and save the limited resources. Major reason for going for recycling of LIBs is the economic value of the cathodic cell components, namely Al, Li, Ni, Co and Mn, which constitutes 90% of the total value and therefore provides more revenue than its constituents (Lain et al., 2001). But the option of going ahead with recycling to extract every one of these materials differs in accordance with feasibility and methodology. Lithium, for instance, can be recycled feasibly but due to the abundance of its presence, recycling it is not economically viable. According to Swain (2019), expensive recycling and the low and volatile price of lithium has been the major reason for absolutely no recovery or recycling of lithium from LIBs in the past years.
Similarly, the price of nickel has been fluctuating significantly over the last decade with a sharp fall in the prices around 2016 and even in 2020. Cobalt, on the other hand, is in a critical demand and supply conflict. Due to its sharply increasing prices, manufacturers have been reducing its use in battery, and being a finite resource recycling can be the only possible way to keep using it in batteries maintaining the stable cost of the battery. According to Dewulf (2010), only Co, Cu, steel, Ni, and Al are currently recycled keeping in view the combined effect of recycling feasibility and final gain. Plastics are incinerated for energy recovery and Li, Mn, and graphite are rarely considered.
LIBs’ recycling industry has not yet developed enough to meet the expected volumes in the years to come and on the other hand due to a majority of electric vehicle batteries not being in their end lifetime and lack of interest in recycling the batteries further aggravates prospects for the already suffering industry. The value of retrieved raw material is often not even sufficient to pay the labor involved in the extraction process of these materials. To make this process economically viable the number of batteries being recycled plays a crucial role.
Looking beyond the economic aspects, the positive effects of recycling the LIBs on the environment are truly compelling. Considering the key constituents of the battery mentioned earlier, recycling can relieve the nature of excessive burdens laid by mining of these elements. To start with, Lithium is often extracted by a process in which water-rich in Lithium salts is pumped from aquifers to the surface and evaporated in lakes. This form of extraction requires high volumes of water and most mining is situated in regions with scarce water resources so recycling lithium can definitely ease the stress on such natural reserves of lithium. Primary aluminium production has much higher emissions than the secondary(recycled) production.
Aluminium is used for battery casings in large quantities and recycling batteries has obvious climate benefits. Although other materials like nickel and cobalt are more important for battery recycling from an economic point of view, recycling aluminium has significant CO2 reduction potentials (ICCT, 2018). Re-melting existing aluminium requires just 5% of the energy of new aluminium production, thus yielding significant energy savings and CO2 reductions (Material Economics, 2018). Romare & Dahllöf, (2017) also presented results from the LithoRec Project (Buchert, et al., 2011)  demonstrating that CO2 emissions can be mitigated by recycling LIBs.
The economic and environmental aspects of recycling these batteries are entirely dependent on technical feasibility. Recycling efficiency rate and the weight percentage of materials recovered are also the general deciding factors for recycling. The Joint Research Committee (JRC) (Lebedeva et al., 2017) has calculated recycling efficiency rates for various elements in selected processes for Nickel Manganese Cobalt (NMC)-type LIBs. The procedure combining pyrometallurgical and hydro-metallurgical processes achieves a recycling efficiency rate of 57% for lithium, 94% for cobalt, and 95% for nickel. While the procedure which uses a purely hydro-metallurgical process can achieve a recycling efficiency rate of 94% for lithium, almost 100% for cobalt, and 97% for nickel. Most of the aluminium is found in the battery casing and some in Nickel Cobalt Aluminium (NCA)-type battery cathodes. It is likely that most of this aluminium will be recycled, with small residues lost in the slag during the recycling process (Lebedeva et al., 2017), hence a recycling efficiency rate of 98% is used for aluminium for both cases.
Battery recycling is advantageous for reasons like increasing the economic gain, saving the mining and importing of depleting natural resources, reducing the energy consumption and CO2 emissions, reducing the environmental toxicity by decreasing waste and managing safety issues, and so on. It was estimated that metals recycling can save 13% of LIBs cost per kWh, but unfortunately currently less than 3% of LIBs are recycled in the world (Sonoc et al., 2015). Recycling might turn into a sizeable industry in the future supporting economy but at present, there are certain technical limitations that make recovery and recycling some elements economically non-viable. Batteries are complex products, and designs and materials are still evolving, which makes planning for future recovery even more challenging (Yanyan et al., 2019). Thus, research and innovation need to be supported in order to improve both the cost-effectiveness and efficiency of recycling batteries for electric vehicles.
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