The large-scale expansion of electric transport in the UK over the next twenty years is now a given, since it is mandated by legislation aimed at addressing global warming via a 2050 net zero greenhouse gas emission target. By 2035, and possibly sooner, the sale of internal combustion engine powered vehicles will be proscribed, with all new vehicles sold beyond that point, whether they are fully electric or hybrids, having a battery. There are various predictions about the number of EVs that will actually be in use, but the total will be large. For example, estimates by National Grid give a range of between 2.7 and 10.6 million by 2030 and as many as 36 million by 2040.
At the moment, there are still relatively few EVs on the road and not many vehicle batteries have so far reached end of life. Also, given that EV batteries can last up to 10 years and that they may then find secondary uses for a further number of years, the demand for a large-scale UK battery recycling capability is still some years away. Nevertheless, the predicted volume of electric vehicles means that the recycling of end of life batteries will ultimately present a big challenge and an opportunity, especially if the UK does become a major manufacturer of electric vehicles and, hopefully by extension, their batteries. It has been predicted that the global lithium-ion battery recycling market will be worth over $30 billion annually by 2040.
At the moment, most EV battery production is based in China, but there are various programmes to establish European battery plants, the so-called ‘Giga-factories’, that are closer to the car production facilities. These will need huge supplies of raw materials, much of which could ultimately be sourced from recycled batteries. From both an environmental, and security of supply perspective, it would make sense for the recyclers, the battery makers and the vehicle producers to be located in close proximity. Therefore, the major car making nations should be expected to make major commitments to both battery manufacturing and battery recycling. However, while there seems to be a commitment to the former, less attention is being paid to the establishment of large-scale battery recycling plants.
In the UK, there is some existing infrastructure for battery collection and recycling that has been operational for many years, albeit not in the area of modern EV traction batteries. The need for the UK to have such an established recycling capability has already been acknowledged by the UK Government and it was specifically highlighted in an October 2018 report (Electric vehicles: driving the transition) produced by the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee. The report noted that there was currently no UK recycling facility for end of life EV batteries and only one plant in Europe (Umicore).
Exporting batteries to mainland Europe presents a major challenge because they are classified as hazardous materials by the Carriage of Dangerous Goods Regulations (CDR) in the UK and the European Agreement on the International Carriage of Dangerous Goods by Road (ADR) in mainland Europe. This makes transporting them for recycling both costly and complex in terms of meeting the customs regulations and preparing the requisite documentation. Not surprisingly, the BEIS report stated that further UK facilities would therefore be required as the number of life expired EV batteries increased. The Government’s response to this committee’s report also confirmed that there was a need for a UK EV recycling capability and it stated there were significant industrial opportunities in this area. Also, one of the key objectives of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund’s Faraday Battery Challenge is ‘A thriving UK industry in battery re-cycling / materials recovery/reconditioning - enabling a circular economy and feeding a UK supply chain’. While this is clearly a worthy aim, it seems unclear at this stage, perhaps mainly due to the complexity of the battery recycling challenge itself, exactly how this will be achieved.
Current EV battery recycling methods typically involve a fair amount of manual intervention, something which is not ideal from a financial perspective in countries such as the UK with relatively high labour costs. One route being considered and indeed tested is to employ as much automation as possible via the use of robots. Utilising robots for battery disassembly would help to minimise costs, thus making the process more economically viable while also avoiding exposing human workers to the risk of potential health and safety issues. However, this type of approach currently seems to be some way from being successfully commercially implemented.
What is clear, however, is that if the UK is to continue to fully exploit its position as a globally significant car manufacturing nation, it will need to invest heavily in all of the automotive supply chain, including battery manufacturing and subsequent recycling for recovery of critical raw materials. It is now the time for the UK to begin a long-term strategic investment, not just in developing new battery technology, but in supporting the building of the so-called Gigafactories that will be needed to supply the huge quantities of batteries needed. In the Faraday Institution’s March 2020 report entitled ‘UK electric vehicle and battery production potential to 2040’ it was estimated that, by 2040, there would be a UK demand for 140 GWh of EV battery production. This would require a substantial expansion and, based on current Gigafactory annual production levels of around 20 GWh per plant, could require up to seven battery production plants. These in turn would generate a substantial demand for materials such as lithium, cobalt, nickel and manganese.
If the UK really does intend to establish a significant EV battery manufacturing capacity, there should also be investment in large-scale, dedicated battery recycling plants that will help source the raw materials needed and enable the UK automotive industry to adopt a true circular economy approach to electric vehicle production. In addition to providing the materials needed from local sources, battery recycling will also offer significant employment opportunities, as well as environmental benefits and export potential.
Written by Martin Goosey, Envaqua Research Ltd.