Optimist View: Building Circularity into Electric Vehicles

To eliminate the concept of waste means to design things-products, packaging, and systems-from the very beginning on the understanding that waste does not exist.  – William McDonough

By Kristy Jansen

Earlier this year I became the proud owner of an all-electric car – a used Nissan Leaf.  I love the quiet drive it gives me, the peppy acceleration of its electric motor.  Sunday gas sales no longer hold any interest for me. There are no oil changes or 5000-mile tune-ups to worry about. Our electric bills have gone up a bit, but it’s a fraction of what I used to spend on gasoline, service and maintenance. 

If you’re a regular reader of the Optimist Daily, you know we are big proponents of the electrification of the transportation system, and you might be sick of hearing us talk about it. California is driving towards all-electric car sales by 2035 and even GM released released an electric model of the Hummer this week.  Germany, China, India, France, the Netherlands, and Ireland have already announced their intention to phase out cars and trucks powered by fossil fuels in the next few decades, and lately more investors are betting on Tesla’s stock than Exxon’s

Electric vehicles hold the potential to revolutionize our transportation systems and eliminate carbon emissions from burned fuel. But even EVs take a toll on the environment when it comes to sourcing, manufacturing, and what’s going to happen to all those lithium batteries at the end of their useful life?  While electric vehicles are certainly greener to operate than their gas-guzzling counterparts, the environmental benefits of owning an electric car go to waste if EV batteries aren’t properly disposed of or repurposed. Battery waste is toxic waste, and the more EVs are driven, the more used batteries we need to deal with. 

At present, EV car sales are only 2.4% of the global car market, but industry experts forecast this number to rise to 10% in the next 5 years and get close to 60% by 2040.  We are only at the start of this massive transition into lithium, and I can’t help but wonder if the world is ready for millions of dead lithium-ion batteries?

If we are to truly realize the potential of electric vehicles, we’ve got to design an end of life strategy into this infant industry from the start. We’ve got to incentivize sustainable supply chains, responsible recycling and create an industry built on a new model.  The good news is there are some signs that this is happening.

A Second Life: reuse & repurposing

Eric Lundgren is an electronic waste recycling evangelist and right-to-repair hero who understands the risks of uncontrolled e-waste.  In an interview with Forbes Green Tech writer Vianney Vaute, Lundgren observed that e-waste plays an outsize role in creating a toxic environment. 

“E-waste comprises 70% of toxic waste in our landfills, even as it makes up just 2% of our solid waste stream. It contains thousands of different toxic, non-organic chemical compounds and heavy metals such as Lead, Mercury, Bromine, Cadmium, Arsenic, etc. that leach into our soil, water table, food and eventually our bodies.”  

His solution is something he calls “Hybrid recycling” finding a new use for stale lithium batteries that would otherwise just wind up in the waste stream. 

To prove his point, he converted a 1997 BMW into an all-electric car, dubbed “the Phoenix” driven with an electric motor and powered by a hodge-podge of used Li-ion batteries.  It currently holds the Guinness World Record for longest range on a single charge at 999.5 miles, a range that beats even a top of the line Tesla.  

Lundgren says: “What we found was, when you open up the pack, 80 percent of the actual batteries are perfectly working. They’re perfect. The problem is that once over 20 percent degradation occurs in the pack, in America we say it’s trash”.

  “Just think, if we properly aggregate and recycle our electronic waste we can effectively eliminate 70% of our toxic waste problem.” – Eric Lundgren

In addition, there are several initiatives to reuse retired EV batteries in stationary power systems.  A new project we recently featured, highlights the partnership between Volvo Buses and Stena Recycling subsidiary Batteryloop, that repurposes old electric bus batteries for static use for energy storage purposes.  In Japan, the Toyota car company and Seven-Eleven stores pioneered a program that includes hooking up old EV batteries with solar panels to power convenience stores.

Creating a Circular Battery Ecosystem           

While reuse and repurposing of spent lithium batteries certainly has a place, if we are to truly solve the issue of responsibly disposing of lithium batteries, we need to stop looking at them as waste.  

Over the past few weeks, I’ve spent a fair amount virtual of time with industry leaders in critical battery mineral supply chains.  This includes lithium mining, graphite refiners, agnostic battery recyclers and mineral investors located in the Americas and Europe. Concerns about meeting the exploding demand of finite resources and reinforcing domestic supply chains are top of mind.  Everyone is talking about ESG, sustainable sourcing and processing of materials, and efficient low impact recycling of li-ion batteries is getting lots of attention.  

At this point, only 5% of global lithium-ion batteries are recycled, but this is starting to change.  In addition to avoiding the environmental hazard that old batteries pose, there is an economically viable and strategically valuable case for recycling. In traditional recycling, invented in the mechanical age with metals like copper and aluminum in mind, mechanical processing and smelting dominate.  This is rough, dirty, inefficient and carbon intensive.  In the very recent past however, new technologies designed around closed loop chemical extraction (hydrometallurgical) processes are being developed, and commercialized.  This makes reclaiming the materials to bring them back into manufacturing supply chains not only possible but highly profitable.  

Talking with Doug Cole, CEO of American Battery Technology Corporation (ABTC), a fully integrated, extraction and recycling technology company with great resources in the ground that recently won the Greentown Labs/BASF Circularity Challenge gave me some insight into industry thinking on building a reliable, sustainable and environmentally responsible battery metal supply chain.  

Cole explains, “The number one area that we can have the greatest impact right now is we can start to recycle this stuff within a green platform today.”  For every ton of recycled battery minerals used in place of virgin materials, more than 5 tons of carbon are offset.  In addition, it uses 97% less water, and produces almost zero other wastes.  Even the water used in the process and the chemical reagents used to extract the battery minerals are recycled, making the entire process completely circular.  Their feedstock is any old battery, what comes out is a stream of revenues in the form of mixed plastics, aluminum, copper, and battery grade lithium, cobalt, manganese, nickel and more.  

Instead of recycling, what ABTC is doing is more akin to de-manufacturing old batteries, Cole explains, “and because we know how to do it, the material immediately goes into the supply chain, and it will immediately get sold right back as battery grade quality materials.” 

Carrots and Sticks

A main driver of the second industrial revolution was the automobile industry, powered by fossil fuels, infused by consumerist economies.  On a global scale, per capita wealth and health has flourished in this timeframe, though at a high cost to the earth’s biosphere.  We continue on this linear path at our own peril.  The need for rapid decarbonization is urgent, and electric vehicles are part of this transition, but we must not replace the extractive petroleum industry with an extractive lithium one. The risks are frightening. 

Local jurisdictions and national governments are playing a role in accelerating the development of an EV market, but they will also have a role in shaping the type of industry that gets built.  Through policies that require sustainably sourced battery materials and responsible end-of-life disposal or forbidding the export of spent batteries as a matter of securing a national supply of critical minerals, governments in Europe and the United States have an opportunity to help support a cleaner energy system.  The upside is tremendous. 

From consumer electronics and e-cigarettes to Tesla power walls and my very own Nissan Leaf – Lithium-ion batteries are powering our lives, powering our vehicles, powering our homes.  We need to build circularity into the entire process, and reward quality and longevity where we can. Thankfully, there is a movement around this idea.  Hopefully we have learned our lesions, and the electric vehicle revolution will keep its promise and truly propel us into a green energy future. 

Solution News Source

Optimist View: Building Circularity into Electric Vehicles

To eliminate the concept of waste means to design things-products, packaging, and systems-from the very beginning on the understanding that waste does not exist.  – William McDonough

By Kristy Jansen

Earlier this year I became the proud owner of an all-electric car – a used Nissan Leaf.  I love the quiet drive it gives me, the peppy acceleration of its electric motor.  Sunday gas sales no longer hold any interest for me. There are no oil changes or 5000-mile tune-ups to worry about. Our electric bills have gone up a bit, but it’s a fraction of what I used to spend on gasoline, service and maintenance. 

If you’re a regular reader of the Optimist Daily, you know we are big proponents of the electrification of the transportation system, and you might be sick of hearing us talk about it. California is driving towards all-electric car sales by 2035 and even GM released released an electric model of the Hummer this week.  Germany, China, India, France, the Netherlands, and Ireland have already announced their intention to phase out cars and trucks powered by fossil fuels in the next few decades, and lately more investors are betting on Tesla’s stock than Exxon’s

Electric vehicles hold the potential to revolutionize our transportation systems and eliminate carbon emissions from burned fuel. But even EVs take a toll on the environment when it comes to sourcing, manufacturing, and what’s going to happen to all those lithium batteries at the end of their useful life?  While electric vehicles are certainly greener to operate than their gas-guzzling counterparts, the environmental benefits of owning an electric car go to waste if EV batteries aren’t properly disposed of or repurposed. Battery waste is toxic waste, and the more EVs are driven, the more used batteries we need to deal with. 

At present, EV car sales are only 2.4% of the global car market, but industry experts forecast this number to rise to 10% in the next 5 years and get close to 60% by 2040.  We are only at the start of this massive transition into lithium, and I can’t help but wonder if the world is ready for millions of dead lithium-ion batteries?

If we are to truly realize the potential of electric vehicles, we’ve got to design an end of life strategy into this infant industry from the start. We’ve got to incentivize sustainable supply chains, responsible recycling and create an industry built on a new model.  The good news is there are some signs that this is happening.

A Second Life: reuse & repurposing

Eric Lundgren is an electronic waste recycling evangelist and right-to-repair hero who understands the risks of uncontrolled e-waste.  In an interview with Forbes Green Tech writer Vianney Vaute, Lundgren observed that e-waste plays an outsize role in creating a toxic environment. 

“E-waste comprises 70% of toxic waste in our landfills, even as it makes up just 2% of our solid waste stream. It contains thousands of different toxic, non-organic chemical compounds and heavy metals such as Lead, Mercury, Bromine, Cadmium, Arsenic, etc. that leach into our soil, water table, food and eventually our bodies.”  

His solution is something he calls “Hybrid recycling” finding a new use for stale lithium batteries that would otherwise just wind up in the waste stream. 

To prove his point, he converted a 1997 BMW into an all-electric car, dubbed “the Phoenix” driven with an electric motor and powered by a hodge-podge of used Li-ion batteries.  It currently holds the Guinness World Record for longest range on a single charge at 999.5 miles, a range that beats even a top of the line Tesla.  

Lundgren says: “What we found was, when you open up the pack, 80 percent of the actual batteries are perfectly working. They’re perfect. The problem is that once over 20 percent degradation occurs in the pack, in America we say it’s trash”.

  “Just think, if we properly aggregate and recycle our electronic waste we can effectively eliminate 70% of our toxic waste problem.” – Eric Lundgren

In addition, there are several initiatives to reuse retired EV batteries in stationary power systems.  A new project we recently featured, highlights the partnership between Volvo Buses and Stena Recycling subsidiary Batteryloop, that repurposes old electric bus batteries for static use for energy storage purposes.  In Japan, the Toyota car company and Seven-Eleven stores pioneered a program that includes hooking up old EV batteries with solar panels to power convenience stores.

Creating a Circular Battery Ecosystem           

While reuse and repurposing of spent lithium batteries certainly has a place, if we are to truly solve the issue of responsibly disposing of lithium batteries, we need to stop looking at them as waste.  

Over the past few weeks, I’ve spent a fair amount virtual of time with industry leaders in critical battery mineral supply chains.  This includes lithium mining, graphite refiners, agnostic battery recyclers and mineral investors located in the Americas and Europe. Concerns about meeting the exploding demand of finite resources and reinforcing domestic supply chains are top of mind.  Everyone is talking about ESG, sustainable sourcing and processing of materials, and efficient low impact recycling of li-ion batteries is getting lots of attention.  

At this point, only 5% of global lithium-ion batteries are recycled, but this is starting to change.  In addition to avoiding the environmental hazard that old batteries pose, there is an economically viable and strategically valuable case for recycling. In traditional recycling, invented in the mechanical age with metals like copper and aluminum in mind, mechanical processing and smelting dominate.  This is rough, dirty, inefficient and carbon intensive.  In the very recent past however, new technologies designed around closed loop chemical extraction (hydrometallurgical) processes are being developed, and commercialized.  This makes reclaiming the materials to bring them back into manufacturing supply chains not only possible but highly profitable.  

Talking with Doug Cole, CEO of American Battery Technology Corporation (ABTC), a fully integrated, extraction and recycling technology company with great resources in the ground that recently won the Greentown Labs/BASF Circularity Challenge gave me some insight into industry thinking on building a reliable, sustainable and environmentally responsible battery metal supply chain.  

Cole explains, “The number one area that we can have the greatest impact right now is we can start to recycle this stuff within a green platform today.”  For every ton of recycled battery minerals used in place of virgin materials, more than 5 tons of carbon are offset.  In addition, it uses 97% less water, and produces almost zero other wastes.  Even the water used in the process and the chemical reagents used to extract the battery minerals are recycled, making the entire process completely circular.  Their feedstock is any old battery, what comes out is a stream of revenues in the form of mixed plastics, aluminum, copper, and battery grade lithium, cobalt, manganese, nickel and more.  

Instead of recycling, what ABTC is doing is more akin to de-manufacturing old batteries, Cole explains, “and because we know how to do it, the material immediately goes into the supply chain, and it will immediately get sold right back as battery grade quality materials.” 

Carrots and Sticks

A main driver of the second industrial revolution was the automobile industry, powered by fossil fuels, infused by consumerist economies.  On a global scale, per capita wealth and health has flourished in this timeframe, though at a high cost to the earth’s biosphere.  We continue on this linear path at our own peril.  The need for rapid decarbonization is urgent, and electric vehicles are part of this transition, but we must not replace the extractive petroleum industry with an extractive lithium one. The risks are frightening. 

Local jurisdictions and national governments are playing a role in accelerating the development of an EV market, but they will also have a role in shaping the type of industry that gets built.  Through policies that require sustainably sourced battery materials and responsible end-of-life disposal or forbidding the export of spent batteries as a matter of securing a national supply of critical minerals, governments in Europe and the United States have an opportunity to help support a cleaner energy system.  The upside is tremendous. 

From consumer electronics and e-cigarettes to Tesla power walls and my very own Nissan Leaf – Lithium-ion batteries are powering our lives, powering our vehicles, powering our homes.  We need to build circularity into the entire process, and reward quality and longevity where we can. Thankfully, there is a movement around this idea.  Hopefully we have learned our lesions, and the electric vehicle revolution will keep its promise and truly propel us into a green energy future. 

Solution News Source

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