More than 6 million electric vehicle (EV) battery packs will end up as scrap between now and 2030, and the recycling and reuse industries are working hard to find a solution. Some researchers project that recycling alone will be a $12 billion-plus industry by 2025.
Every electric car uses lithium batteries. They are the most advanced and hold the longest charge, but there is a hidden ticking time bomb most people are missing that will impact our environment.
The U.S. government wants to make America a key player in the EV battery industry with a $3.1 billion spending package for automobile production to transition away from fossil fuels. Much of this green energy relies on a Nevada high desert facility called Thacker Pass.
Thacker Pass is the key to increased domestic lithium production and more EV batteries. Thacker Pass is the largest hard rock lithium reserve in the United States. Currently, China dominates the world’s EV battery production, with more than 80% of all units developed there. The current administration has its sights on the top spot for EV battery production. However, insiders are pointing out industry traps no one is talking about.
Due to the potentially dangerous chemistry of lithium-ion EV units, solutions are needed before an avalanche of dead battery packs ends up sitting around and waiting for recycling like ticking time bombs. Those working on the sales end of the EV revolution tend to avoid or offer vague generalities when asked about what will happen to all of the old batteries.
The standard reply is lumped into the very broad category of recycling or second-life applications without offering any planning details. Second-life applications are an option for EV batteries that no longer work for cars, but are suitable for alternative uses like energy storage. This is a great start, but the ultimate question lingers: How can America effectively deal with millions of completely spent, defective or recalled EV units?
For people who specialize in hazardous waste, handling lithium batteries is a serious subject. According to Scott Thibodeau at Veolia North America, which is the second-largest hazmat removal service in the United States, the chemistry of lithium-ion batteries is problematic since they can’t be dumped or recycled as easily as some other materials. This requires particular processes within the evolving EV industry to responsibly strip, package and dispose of old units.
Another factor is that EV batteries pose a significant fire hazard. Putting out a traditional fire is done by using water or chemicals to cut off the supply of oxygen. However, lithium is unique in that it doesn’t require oxygen to burn. Once ignited, it creates what Thibodeau calls a “thermal runaway,” which is incredibly challenging to control. “Once the battery goes into that state, stopping it is next to impossible.” Thibodeau says that while there’s no easy way to put out a lithium battery fire, having proper handling and storage, is a huge step in the right direction.
Recycling EV batteries poses another significant hurdle. That’s due to complications including expense, existing capacity to handle demand, and the simple fact these batteries aren’t easy to recycle.
“Currently, less than 5%of lithium batteries that reach the end of their lifespan are recycled,” Thibodeau says. It’s not possible to recycle lithium-ion batteries until they reach the end of their lifespan.
Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act wants the U.S. to increase EV lithium battery production. There’s going to be a real supply crunch to get the materials needed. We don’t have enough in the world to turn that much lithium production by 2035. In addition, the EPA’s slow permitting process has stalled approvals for new production sites. Meanwhile, China has continued to dominate the industry, refining more than half of all lithium supply while Australia and Chile remain the largest producers in the world.
We are in a tough position of trying to produce more EVs batteries and have no way to recycle all of them. How does any of this help the environment or consumers?
There is so much more to discuss on this, put your comments below and let’s start the conversation.
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