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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 and Sam Suh

Earlier this year, I became the proud owner of an all-electric car一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一you might even be sick of hearing us talk about it. The way we see it, though, electrification is inevitable: California is driving towards all-electric car sales by 2035; GM has even released an electric model of the Hummer. 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 have the potential to revolutionize our transportation systems and eliminate carbon emissions from burned fuel, but even EVs can take a toll on the environment, particularly when it comes to sourcing, manufacturing, and disposing of all the lithium batteries electric cars need.

A recent study demonstrated that electric vehicles are greener to operate than their gas-guzzling counterparts through their entire lifecycle, but the environmental benefits of owning an electric car are tarnished 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 percent of the global car market, but industry experts forecast this number to rise to 10 percent in the next 5 years and to approach 60 percent by 2040. With the US government’s pledge to hit 50 percent EV sales in the new car market by 2030, 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.

Cradle-to-Grave Design 

In order to account for the many unwritten costs in a product’s lifespan, manufacturers must account for impacts at each stage of a product’s life. The complex chain of production within the battery industry includes lithium miners, graphite refiners, agnostic battery recyclers, and mineral investors, to name a few. Concerns about meeting the exploding demand with 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 five percent 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 the 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 five tons of carbon are offset.

In addition, it uses 97 percent 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.”

Recycling in Action 

Thanks to innovators such as Cole, entrepreneurs are beginning to realize the potential of recycling lithium batteries. Eric Lundgren is one such party, an electronic waste recycling evangelist and a right-to-repair hero who understands the risks of uncontrolled e-waste. In an interview with Forbes tech writer Vianney Vaute, Lundgren observed that e-waste plays an outsized 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 

Perceptive businesses, noticing the same trends, have been working towards change on a larger scale: There have been several initiatives to reuse retired EV batteries in stationary power systems. In Japan, the Toyota car company and Seven-Eleven stores pioneered a program that hooks up old EV batteries with solar panels to power convenience stores. In the US, researchers have explored the possibility of creating large-scale solar farms in California, using recycled batteries as a means for power storage. Such a design is expected to save anywhere from 30-70 percent compared to traditional means.

Meanwhile, in nearby Nevada, battery recycling company Redwood Materials plans to add an additional 400,000 square feet to a local facility. Headed by Tesla’s former chief technology officer, Redwood already has the capacity to recycle enough material for 45,000 car battery packs一at an estimated value of $90 million.

This latest round of investment is expected to triple the scale of operations and cost several hundred million dollars. The expected market value of clean energy technology is expected to reach 23 trillion by the end of the decade, and Redwood is poised to take full advantage.

Room for Growth 

Part of the beauty of the EV industry is that we are seeing new developments in battery sustainability all the time. More eccentric solution-seekers have even found promise in using bacteria to recycle batteries.

One of the proponents of using bacteria to recycle precious metals from EV batteries is Sebastian Farnaud, a researcher and professor at Coventry University in the UK. In a piece for The Conversation, he explains how a process called bioleaching, or biomining, employs microbes that can oxidize metal as part of their metabolism.

The technique isn’t new and has already been widely used in the mining industry, where microorganisms are employed to extract valuable metals from ores. The same process has also been used to recover precious metals from circuit boards and solar panels.

Bioleaching involves growing bacteria in incubators at 37°C (98°F). Compared to traditional recycling methods, the process has a significantly smaller carbon footprint, making it a much greener alternative. Although this solution has not yet been scaled up, it’s a strong example of how many effective battery recycling techniques are just breaking onto the EV scene.

The Carrot on the Stick 

The automotive industry was one of the cornerstones of the second industrial revolution, even as capitalist cash directed the auto industry itself. Using natural resources indiscriminately has certainly resulted in some positives: we enjoy a far higher standard of living today than anyone else has in history. But the consequences are also grave. We’re in desperate need of decarbonization, and our propensity to put profit before the planet threatens to jeopardize the future. Electric cars are great, but failing to adequately dispose of their waste products will be disastrous.

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 US 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一Lithium-ion batteries are powering our lives, powering our vehicles, and powering our homes. We need to build circularity into the entire process and reward quality and longevity where we can. Thankfully, there is already a market and means for recycling to be profitable. Hopefully, we have learned our lessons, and the electric vehicle revolution will keep its promise and truly propel us into a green energy future.

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