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Currently, this is when the capacity has reduced to something like 75% of its original specified capability. At this point, the battery is no longer suitable for use in vehicle propulsion, but it could be good enough for other use outside of the automotive industry in applications such as storage of renewable energy, either at the generation site or in individual homes. There is thus a significant opportunity to extend the life of vehicle batteries through second use in different applications before they are consigned to recycling. Once a battery does indeed finally reach the end of its useful life, there are also opportunities for its valuable materials to be recovered and reused in the manufacture or new batteries.
The electric vehicle battery is thus recognised as being an ideal component for the adoption of a circular economic approach. By extending their lifetimes, and through the adoption of appropriate recycling processes, there should be direct benefits to both the industry supply chain, the users of the devices and society as a whole. However, the situation is actually rather complex and deciding what should be done with these batteries depends on many factors. At the moment, there are two schools of thought; end of first life batteries can be reused in secondary applications, as mentioned, but they can also be directly recycled to supply the critical raw materials needed to make new batteries. This difference of opinion is evidenced by the approaches adopted by car makers such as Tesla and Toyota. Although Tesla actually supplies a product known as ‘PowerWall’ for storing electricity in the domestic environment, this device is manufactured using new batteries rather than those recovered from its vehicles. In fact, Tesla directly recycles its vehicle batteries to recover the raw materials needed to make new batteries. The company has developed a unique battery recycling system at its Nevada Gigafactory that can maximize the recovery of critical battery minerals, including lithium and cobalt. Conversely, other car makers are actively engaging with partners to help develop secondary applications for their ex-vehicle batteries. Toyota, which has manufactured the Prius hybrid for many years, has announced that it plans to use recovered batteries outside 7-Eleven shops in Japan. They will store electricity generated by solar panels, and then use the energy to help power drink coolers, fried chicken warmers and sausage grills inside the shops. There are also numerous other examples of opportunities for reusing end of life vehicle batteries, such as energy storage and balancing at solar farms.
Consequently, it is clear that there are different approaches that can be adopted with end of first life electric vehicle batteries and making the correct decision may not be as easy as it first appears. What is clear, however, is that there a numerous socio-economic factors that need to be considered and prioritised, when making such choices. The Valuable project is investigating these factors in detail and they cover many aspects beyond the basic economics. Some of these very interesting considerations will be introduced and discussed in future articles.