Zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) sales are on the rise, and the momentum is only expected to increase as countries across the globe mandate a zero-emission automotive future as early as 2019. Peter O’Connor from the Union of Concerned Scientists noted that U.S. ZEV sales are up 45% for the 12-month period from July 2016-June 2017 when compared to the previous 12-month period. Globally, the number of ZEVs accelerated past 2M earlier this year, and the International Energy Agency estimates there could be 140M electric cars around the world by 2030.
These numbers are staggering and pose a looming question: What will be done with all of the used ZEV batteries when they are no longer viable? As discussed in Part I of All Zero-Emission Vehicles Are Not Created Equal, lithium-ion batteries, the most widely used battery option, have made the current generation of ZEVs possible (as well as laptops, cell phones, digital cameras, etc.) and could account for 90 percent of the lithium-ion battery market by 2025.
A current ZEV battery has an estimated lifespan of 10 years, at which point they can and should be recycled. However, ZEVs are a relatively new addition to the automotive market, and as such the battery-recycling infrastructure is limited as well. Batteries carry a risk of giving off toxic gases if damaged, core ingredients are finite and extraction can lead to water pollution and depletion among other environmental consequences. Case in point, currently in the EU, there are as few as 5% of lithium-ion batteries being recycled.
Widespread battery recycling would keep hazardous materials from entering the waste stream at the end of a battery’s useful life, but not all recycling processes are the same.
One process is called smelting in which precious metals, such as cobalt and nickel, are recovered from the batteries and refined so that the product is suitable for other uses. However, this is not necessarily the best option for lithium-ion batteries as there is no guarantee that lithium will be recovered, and the process is often more costly than mining new lithium. As Jessica Alsford, head of investment bank Morgan Stanley’s global sustainable research team said, “There still needs to be more development to get to closed loop recycling where all materials are reclaimed. There’s a difference between being able to do something and it making economic sense.”
ZEV batteries can maintain up to 70% of their capacity when they are no longer sustainable to power a vehicle. For this reason, some believe that another solution lies in repurposing lithium-ion batteries for home energy storage. However, before the battery can be reused, it must be broken down, tested and repackaged. These labor and energy intensive processes leave many ZEV supporters and automotive manufacturers alike seeking better options for zero-emission vehicle batteries, options that provide long-term, sustainable solutions for recycling and/or repurposing.
ZEVs, and coincidently the batteries that power them, are the way of the future. “We urgently need to change how we power our cars and trucks. America has fallen behind in the race to build cars of the future,” stated Energy Secretary Steven Chu. For this reason, automotive technology is rapidly advancing and clean technology automotive manufacturers, such as RONN Motor Group, Inc. have recognized that the current list of options are not entirely acceptable and are working diligently to establish new paths forward. In this week’s upcoming Part III of All Zero-Emission Vehicles Are Not Created Equal, one such option and its benefits will be discussed as an alternative solution to the next generation of ZEV batteries.