No technology is environmentally benign. Everything has an embodied carbon cost, a materials footprint, and has to be disposed of in a responsible way. To claim a place in a circular economy, any prospective green technology has to minimise that embodied carbon and be fully recyclable or reusable at the end of its useful life.
Some green technologies continue to be criticised on these fronts – what happens to solar panels or electric car batteries at the end of their lives? What about the depletion of lithium and other materials? What about unethical cobalt?*
A few weeks ago I wrote about how solar panels can be dismantled and systematically recycled. They are much more recyclable than many have assumed, and the main reason it hasn’t been done up to now is that there haven’t been enough of them reaching the end of their lives. As the early generations of panels start to come down after their 25 or so years of service, the amount of waste panels is rising and making recycling profitable.
We’re seeing something similar with electric cars. The more of them there are on the roads, the bigger the incentive for businesses to start developing techniques for recycling the batteries. They are tricky, there’s no question about that. They contain dangerous and flammable compounds, and have to be handled with care. But they are recyclable.
There are various ways to do it, but the process that Deusenfeld have developed in Germany is the one I want to highlight as an example of how it can be done well. They bring in old batteries, and hook them up to drain the last of the energy out of them – that actually powers a lot of the recycling process. They they grind them into dust in the mightiest blender you’ll ever see.
That doesn’t sound very environmentally friendly, but the alternative is to heat them up and melt them, which needs a whole lot more energy. What happens next is that the dust is sorted through a series of steps that extract different materials. The liquid electrolyte is drawn off and sent for re-use in the chemicals industry. Nickel, cobalt, lithium, graphite and manganese are all recovered, ready to be used again.
Duesenfeld’s idea is to shrink their tech down so that it can be fitted into a shipping container. Rather than drive trucks of flammable batteries around on the motorways, the recycling centre will come to the batteries. Once they’ve been ground up they’re no longer dangerous.
It’s a highly innovative process, and while it’s precise techniques are unique and closely guarded, there are similar companies elsewhere. There was a new announcement just this week from Norway, which has the highest percentage of EVs in the world.
So yes, electric cars batteries can be recycled. Same goes with the batteries out of electric buses and other vehicles, which are ultimately more important than cars in sustainable transport. The materials batteries contain are valuable, and there is money to be made in recovering them. If you buy an EV today, it is highly unlikely that the battery will be thrown away when your car is retired.
Here’s a short video explainer, and if you want some more details about the science behind it, see this episode of the Fully Charged Show.
*Cobalt is probably a post for another time. Briefly though, critics of electric cars like to point out that cobalt is often unethically mined in the Congo. This is a real problem, is obviously unacceptable and needs further action. However, cobalt can be ethically sourced. Not all EV batteries use it, and since the price of cobalt has shot up, more battery manufacturers are reducing the amount they use or moving away from it. And where cobalt is used, it can be recovered and used again as Duesenfeld have demonstrated.
All crude-oil based fuels also rely on cobalt, as it is used as a catalyst to reduce sulphur pollution. So if you ever hear a petrol car driver sneering at electric cars because of the cobalt, they haven’t done their homework.