In 2022, 40% more EVs were registered than in 2021, and this huge increase in sales has led to questions being raised about what happens to an electric car’s battery when it’s no longer in use.
Let’s begin with the lifespan of a typical EV battery, as this is longer than many people think. This was raised as a potential problem when EVs were first introduced to the masses because of the assumption that these batteries would follow the pattern of IPhone batteries, which were infamous for their rapid degradation. It was quickly shown that EV batteries only degrade by 2% per year. Even if some components become faulty, because batteries are made up of lots of individual cells, they can be repaired or replaced. Most manufacturers offer warranties that guarantee the battery for its capacity, claiming it will maintain 70% capacity for seven to eight years. Battery improvements are continuously being made and as of today the average lifespan is around 10 years.
What happens next is the part of an EV battery’s life that is often misconstrued. Due to regulations, EV batteries are banned from landfill. The incineration and disposal process has been prohibited meaning at this point the battery begins its second life. When the battery is no longer capable of running an EV, it still typically has 80% of usable charge capacity left in the battery that can be repurposed. At the end of its life, each battery is graded to determine whether it will be suitable for recycling or repurposing. If a battery is graded for repurposing it will often be used for secondary energy storage such as power packs or solar energy repositories. EV manufacturers all have their own protocols when their batteries need to be recycled, for example, Nissan repurpose their batteries in their factory delivery vehicles.
Although repurposing is the most sustainable option, batteries can sometimes be damaged and unsuitable for this process. In this case, they are sent to a recycling facility, where the minerals and metals will be extracted to be used in new batteries. Recycling old materials rather than mining new ones sounds like a flawless plan, but in reality it can be a complicated process. There are two ways to extract the materials, either shredding and smelting or dissolving in acid. Currently, neither of these processes are seamless or as sustainable as they could be. Thankfully, there are huge advancements being made all the time, such as research that is looking at the use of ‘solid-state batteries’ that have the potential to outlast lithium-ion batteries and maintain peak optimisation for around 30 years. A battery recycling company has recently revealed its plans for the first EV battery recycling plant in the UK, its new process protects the materials through chemical extractions whilst reducing emissions and water consumption by up to 50%.
Although the recycling of EV batteries may not have reached its maximum effectiveness, the industry is definitely getting there. In the meantime, legislation is protecting the environment as well as encouraging companies to look to the future and invest in the research and development of new technologies.