In the relatively recent past, the commoditisation and rapid performance evolution of many electronic products, such as mobile phones, meant that huge quantities of perfectly functional devices ended up being discarded, often finding their way to landfill. This was clearly not sustainable and caused both environmental issues and a loss of valuable raw materials. The problem of what to do with end of life electronic and electrical equipment was soon recognised and resulted in the introduction of legislation such as the European Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive. The WEEE Directive, and similar legislation implemented by many countries around the world, has attempted to address the problem by setting targets for the collection, recovery and recycling of waste electrical and electronic equipment and diverting it from landfill to recycling. The legislation also makes the original producers responsible for their products when they enter the waste stream.
This recognition of the impact of WEEE on the environment and the loss of materials has encouraged the adoption of more sustainable and circular economy focussed approaches, which include reuse, repair, and refurbishment, as alternatives to simple disposal. While such activities are clearly beneficial, there can also be issues around who actually wants to use a refurbished item and how much it costs compared to a new product. In the case of mobile phones, which can be perfectly serviceable for many years but commonly replaced after 18 months to two years of service when a contract expires, there is often a ready market. For goods with longer service lives such as televisions and computers, they are less likely to be either economically competitive or to have the desired performance to make them attractive to second users. However, just because a discarded piece of electronic equipment may not be marketable in, for example Europe, there are other places, especially in the developing world, where low cost second life electronics provide the only affordable way for people with lower incomes to access modern technology. There has thus been significant activity in recent years in supplying working mobile phones to many African countries.
In 2019, a report produced by the GSM Association, stated that sub-Saharan Africa was predicted to have the world’s fastest growth in smartphone adoption, with around 160 million new users being added to the total by 2025. This demand will, in no small part, be satisfied with pre-owned devices, because they offer a very cost-effective option for African subscribers. They provide the chance to own a relatively up to date phone at a small fraction of the price of a new one. Finding a second use for these phones is also much more sustainable and environmentally friendly, helping to conserve the raw materials and energy that would otherwise be needed to manufacture new products. More importantly, this increased access to mobile communications and the internet is known to have a significant positive impact on economic development and in helping to enhance democratic governance, while also offering major advantages for health, education, agriculture and employment.
Given that the benefits of having access to up to date electronic products are clear and substantial, it is interesting to consider whether the approach can be applied to second life batteries. It is already obvious that finding second uses for batteries is preferable to immediate recycling, both from an environmental and sustainability perspective and there is considerable interest in their utilisation for energy storage and management applications, especially when in association with renewable energy sources, such as solar (PV) and wind. In 2019, the World Bank estimated that over 600 million Africans had no access to electricity and, of these, many living in remote and rural communities are unlikely to ever have access to a national grid, because it is simply uneconomic to connect them. This not only prevents such households from using electric lights and domestic appliances, but it makes accessing the digital economy prohibitively expensive. However, as the cost of solar power (PV) has fallen considerably, African solar power generation has increased by a factor of twenty times over the last ten years. The use of simple, low cost PV energy storage devices offers the benefit of supplying power for lighting, operating TVs and charging mobile phones etc, at night and when the sun isn’t shining.
Providing energy collection and storage systems for developing countries is an area where there is expected to be substantial growth for the next twenty years or more. It could also provide local employment opportunities for the manufacture of such units and for providing a local ‘used battery’ supply chain. If necessary, in the initial stages of implementation, countries such as the UK could design and supply kits as part of an educational and training opportunity, whereby people can be taught a range of electronics manufacturing skills such as soldering, assembly and testing. Local people could then be trained to build and repair the units (encouraging reuse, repair and recycling). The requisite supply chains will also need to be developed within each targeted region in order to support the production of units as well as the supply and testing of batteries. In more remote areas, it may be possible to utilise schools or community centres as the primary training and manufacturing locations, thereby enabling local ‘cottage industries’ to be developed. Young adults, older children and community members could be taught how to build, test and install the units (soldering, electronics assembly etc.). The skills needed to maintain, service and repair units can also be provided via suitable training. The development of this type of battery reuse market would also help to promote sustainability and encourage responsible handling at end of life.
Finally, at end of second life, there could also be local recycling opportunities to enable the recovery of key raw materials, such as cobalt and tantalum. Given that Africa is one of the key suppliers of these important metals, there is an already established infrastructure and supply route for shipping the raw materials from where they are mined to where they are used, e.g. China. There should, therefore, be opportunities for end of life lithium-ion batteries to be inserted into this route at some point, allowing a true circular economy approach to be implemented, while also generating further employment opportunities in dismantling and recycling.
Much work has already been done in this area, with various energy supply programmes having been successfully implemented. However, there is an opportunity to expand the provision of battery storage and supply units for larger scale devices capable of providing more substantial amounts of power, such as for small communities, neighbourhoods, or groups of houses. It is clear that over the next twenty years and beyond, there will be a vast increase in the number of batteries that are reaching end of first life in transport applications and that will be available for secondary storage applications. Providing power to areas of the world that are likely to remain off grid could be one of the key objectives for those engaged in the reuse of ex-EV batteries.
Written by Martin Goosey, Envaqua Research Ltd.