The importance of battery recycling has become increasingly appreciated in recent years, since battery uncontrolled disposal and consignment to landfill can lead to environmental issues and result in the loss of potentially valuable materials. With the world now well underway towards converting its transport from internal combustion to electrical power, the demand for battery recycling, repurposing and recovery is set to expand enormously over the next twenty years. This undoubtedly offers many significant opportunities, but it is also a potential source of problems that must be addressed if the full benefits of using batteries are to be realised. On the positive side, recycling can provide the raw materials required for making new batteries, thereby reducing demand from primary mining sources and the associated negative impacts. For example, there have long been concerns about the way cobalt is extracted in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with its use of artisanal mining, unsafe and hazardous working conditions, and the use of child labour.
The benefits of recycling are now well documented and include reduced energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, along with natural resource savings when compared to landfill. It is thus now generally agreed that lithium-ion battery recovery, reuse and recycling is, overall, good for the environment but, moreover, it has the potential to provide a number of social benefits although, to a certain extent, these depend on how and where such activities are performed. Even from a simple consideration of the overall end of life recycling hierarchy, reuse is clearly the preferred option, since it reduces the need for new batteries, avoids the use of primary raw materials and delays perfectly functional (for some applications) batteries being recycled for their constituent components. Although this processing of end of first life EV batteries is a relatively new and rapidly expanding but necessary activity, it is becoming clear that it should be able offer benefits to society. Some of the potential broader social and related benefits of recycling and reuse include:
The need for end of life EV batteries to be processed, tested and characterised before decisions are made on their eventual fate will offer new employment potential for people with a range of skills. There will also be opportunities for the provision of training and upskilling for those interested in working in this new and high-technology related area. Additionally, given that recycling activities should, ideally, be established locally, there is a strong case for UK-based job creation. To date, job creation in battery refurbishment and reuse has mainly been considered in the context of taking EV batteries and producing new energy storage devices, but there may also be a need to refurbish batteries to produce lower priced EV battery packs for use with older vehicles, where the cost of a new one would be prohibitively expensive. Hence, there is the social benefit of enabling older, lower value electric vehicles to remain in service, thereby providing viable transport for those who need a car but who are unable to afford more expensive newer options. Without such approaches, the bottom end of the second-hand car market could effectively disappear, leaving those with lower incomes unable to provide personal transport for themselves and their families in a way that has always been possible with ICE powered cars.
However, the social benefits are not limited to countries such as the UK that will be discarding large quantities of end of life first life batteries. There are still many regions of the world where there is no access to grid supplied electricity and, when it is available, it is very expensive. There is thus the possibility to use tested, ex-EV batteries to provide energy storage from renewable electricity generation, e.g. solar or wind. This can offer significant societal benefits for those currently living ‘off grid’. For example, two out of three people in sub-Saharan Africa live without access to electricity and it has been estimated that there will still be ~540 million Africans living ‘off grid’ in 2040. There is then a significant latent demand for the provision of alternative power sources to such people and their properties. With the reduced cost of solar cells and the good and relatively long access periods to sunshine, it is possible to provide renewable electricity exactly where it is needed.
The key challenge then, of course, is to how best to store the electricity, so that it can be used when most needed. Many homes currently rely on candles, kerosene lamps or battery-powered torches, all of which are expensive and, in some cases, potentially harmful or dangerous. In addition to the provision of lighting for homes at night and to enable children to do their homework, more substantial supplies could also provide power for PCs, mobile phones, televisions and other domestic appliances. Additional social benefits include training, along with the potential for employment and small business creation. For example, a ‘cottage industry’ approach could be developed as part of an initial educational and training plan, where people are taught a range of electronics manufacturing skills such as soldering, assembly and testing. Subsequently, once installed, it would be possible to train local people to service and repair the energy storage units, thereby encouraging reuse, repair and recycling.
It is clear that EV-battery recovery, reuse and recycling has the potential to offer numerous positive benefits if carried out in an optimised manner. At the macro-level, these can include environmental and circular economy benefits that will help the world address global warming and reduce carbon dioxide emissions. At the more local level, there is also the potential for real social benefits. Two of these have been briefly mentioned above, but there are a number of others; these need to be given the emphasis they deserve, and factored in, when investment decisions are being made related to end of life EV batteries.