Tackling the dirty little secret of 'clean' electric cars

EV battery shredder in action
An electric vehicle battery shredder in action. Credit: University of Birmingham

In secure, explosion-proof chambers, researchers are trying to find answers to a new - but urgent - question: What happens when an electric car battery reaches the end of its life?

It’s an issue which is becoming more and more pertinent. The move away from fossil fuels to electric is being hailed as one of the key solutions to reducing carbon emissions as part of efforts to tackle the climate crisis, with sales of all new petrol and diesel cars being banned in the UK by 2030.

That, along with a wider understanding of and concern about climate change, means sales of electric vehicles are soaring. Last month, more than a quarter of new cars sold were powered solely by electricity.

But mining the precious metals to make electric vehicle batteries is expensive, carbon intensive and ethically dubious.

And that's what researchers at the universities of Birmingham and Leicester are trying to tackle.

Electric cars are growing in popularity, as the government focuses on net-zero targets Credit: PA
  • What’s the issue?

The batteries which power electric vehicles generally last between 10 and 15 years, meaning the first generation of widely-available electric cars will be coming to the end of their lives at around this point.

And with more and more electric vehicles on the road, the result in the coming years will be more and more batteries reaching the end of their useful life. 

Veolia UK’s strategic development manager for hazardous waste, Mike Crarer, told us that by 2040 estimates suggest there will be as many as 350,000 tonnes of used batteries in the UK alone which need to be dealt with - the equivalent of 300 lorry loads every single week.

Without a plan, that is an enormous amount of toxic chemical waste being created.

Furthermore, the kind of batteries found in electric vehicles, as well as other electronics, contain a number of precious metals such as cobalt, lithium and nickel.

These materials are not readily accessible, and need to be mined in mineral-rich places such as the deep sea bed off the coast of Spain, or in the Democratic Republic of Congo. There are ethical concerns related to unsafe labour practices and child labour, as well as a potentially huge negative knock-on effect on the ecology of those areas.

And these materials aren’t only used in batteries - lithium and cobalt are both invaluable resources for the pharmaceutical industry. More demand on these resources, which are already difficult to obtain in their raw form, threatens to create a shortage of certain medications and medical equipment. 

Finding a way to recycle and reuse these elements, therefore, is of vital importance.

This video from the University of Birmingham demonstrates the shredding process.

  • Can it be done?

The simple answer is: Yes, absolutely.

The slightly less simple answer is: Yes, but the process isn’t perfect, and researchers are working to find new and improved alternatives.

One current method of recycling is known as shredding. Once the battery has been discharged and made safe, the battery packs are extracted and fed into a machine which chews them up into small pieces so the valuable metals can be extracted.

"Shredding and sorting is a good way of doing it,” Rob Sommerville, a research fellow at the University of Birmingham, said. 

“But we could do better. You do get impurities mixed in and you're not always able to recover every single one of the components, and you're not always able to recover the materials at a very high efficiency. You might lose some of them.

“If we can improve this, we can provide a wider variety of these important materials that we need for a low carbon economy as we move forward in the future.”

He is one of a team of researchers across the University of Birmingham and the University of Leicester who have teamed up with The Faraday Institute to work out the best way forward.

One possibility is a process known as delamination.

"Instead of shredding, we can disassemble the cell and then treat the individual foils separately,” Rob added.

“We can remove these powders and active materials from the outside of the foils, and then we can recycle these at a much higher purity - meaning we can be more efficient, more green and more responsible.”

This video from the University of Leicester demonstrates the delamination process.

  • How quickly can we start recycling these batteries?

Depending on where you go, you might be able to recycle your old electric vehicle batteries already - research is ongoing around the world in partnership with manufacturers.

But even if not yet, it should be soon.

With plans for an electric battery gigafactory in Coventry already approved, some experts are eyeing up the Midlands as a potential hub for battery recycling too.

Earlier this month, waste and recycling company Veolia UK - which has centres across the East and West Midlands - announced a £500,000 plan to turn a site in Minworth, near Sutton Coldfield, into a dedicated electric vehicle battery recycling centre.

It is due to open in September, and bosses hope it will be able to process 20% of the UK’s used car battery stock by 2025, and grow as the industry grows.

“The Midlands has a really strong history of vehicle manufacturing, so if the gigafactory in Coventry goes ahead, that would be great,” Veolia’s Mr Crarer told us.

Plans for a gigafactory at Coventry Airport have been approved, but no manufacturer has signed up Credit: West Midlands Gigafactory

“It’s an ideal spot for us, and being central means it’s well placed to reduce transport time from different areas of the country.”

He added: “If we can start to recycle more back into the battery manufacturing, there'll be less strain on those critical metals which are needed in other industries, things like medicines.

“We’re not just talking about the UK. You've got the same going on in Germany, France, America, Poland, everywhere, and they're all going to need these materials. So if you're going to keep digging these out of the ground, if you're going to keep mining them, they will eventually get to the bottom of that hole and that will start to run out. 

“But if you're recycling them, you create a circular economy. You can start to use fewer virgin resources so you can stop mining at all potentially, or mine very little.

“That’s a better solution for everybody.”

The £500,000 plant will be based at Minworth, near Sutton Coldfield.
  • What else is going on?

The researchers are also working with manufacturers on making the batteries as green as possible in other ways, by ensuring recyclability is built in to the design from the outset - which isn’t always the case at the moment.

“The reason electric vehicle battery recycling is really important is two sided. On the one hand, we've got a waste management challenge and we need to ensure that batteries are disposed of safely. But on the other hand, there's an enormous opportunity to recover the valuable critical materials contained in lithium ion batteries,” Gavin Harper, another research fellow at the University of Birmingham, explained.

“We’ve got to deal with the electric vehicle batteries of today, but also we can imagine electric vehicle batteries evolving into the future. 

"So we're also looking at how you can design those batteries to be able to recycle them - things like glues and adhesives are real problems to take apart. So how can we design batteries that can be more easily recycled?”

Valuable metals shredded from an EV battery, ready to be sorted and recycled.

  • In conclusion…

It’s a tricky business. When it comes to the environment, and the climate, nothing happens in isolation - and if we’re not careful, the solutions of today might create new problems for tomorrow.

But the research is promising, and it’s progressing quickly. The simple fact that it’s being addressed at this stage at all, before we are faced with mountains of disused electric vehicle batteries sat in hazardous waste dumps, seeping toxins into the environment, can be seen as a positive sign.

Whether it’s happening quickly enough is a different question.

It is also a wake-up call as to the way we treat our other waste electronics. Even the most basic mobile phones contain valuable resources which could be recycled if disposed of properly.

“There are instructions on the backs of these products which tell you what not to do with lithium ion batteries,” Rob Sommerville added.

“Those instructions are there for a reason.

“Not just in cars, but in mobile phones too. Some people still just throw old phones into the bin - please - don’t.”

There are dedicated recycling bins for electronics at most household recycling centres, and being able to rescue even tiny elements from these could help reduce the need for mining.

Recycling also used less water, and produced less carbon dioxide, than refining raw materials, meaning the whole process is greener from start to finish.