Holy Grail of Auto Battery Recycling Achievable, Some Day

EY metals analyst sees big business and ecological benefits from investment in recycling lithium battery components.

Paul Myles, European Editor

April 24, 2024

4 Min Read
Battery Recycle
Battery recycling success relies on building closed-loop circularity.

While recycling lithium-ion automotive batteries is still in its infancy, there are indications that future development could see enormous business and ecological advantages from the technology.

That’s the view of Jade Rodysill Ernst & Young (EY) global and Americas chemical and materials industry lead who tells WardsAuto that rescuing core materials from aging batteries will be a revenue source that automakers are increasingly interested in exploiting.

He says: “There are some green shoots in terms of recycling lithium batteries such as the efficacy of tests on extracting the core components, such as cadmium, which, in some cases, are better than the virgin material. So, the remanufactured batteries have the potential to be better than non-recycled batteries. That’s an upside to this, although it’s early days and low scale volume.”

He points to the number of automakers who have been exploring this sector albeit with the caveat that their future involvement will be prone to the vagaries of market supply and demand. Rodysill explains: “We have seen more of the OEMs leaning into this directly, so the big incentive in the last couple of years has been that the battery manufacturing part of the battery chain collapsed and that got the OEMs into the business and dealing directly with the suppliers. This changed a lot of people’s rule books and how the recycling business works.

“However, the problem now is, with the collapse of lithium prices, will that incentive in recycling continue to be there or will more of a forward value chain or will there be a return to reverse value chain when prices increase?”

Many exponents of battery recycling will be aiming for the Holy Grail of reaching the sort of closed-loop circularity of lead-acid batteries that achieve in excess of 95% total recyclable materials. Yet, Rodysill is more sanguine about the prospects for lithium batteries although he points to other areas of recycling that could provide an example of what batteries can achieve.

He says: “We are some way from that [cheaper recycled core materials] but we can see the path to breakeven. We tend to look at the curves of recycling that has gone on before and we look at what happened with PET, plastic bottles, and there are parts of that industry that see 50%-60% recycled products. We have even seen plants that make traditional PET out of virgin materials being shut down, particularly in Europe, because there’s such a flow of recycled material that there is now no need for those plants.”

He suggests that the consumer and regulators can have an impact on whether automotive recycling can get anywhere close to the success seen in the plastics industry. Rodysill adds: “So, we know the curve is there but, in general, there has to be social pressure where people are willing to walk away from a less recycled EV versus a more recycled EV. That hasn’t happened yet, particularly in high inflationary environments that have been sustained for some time. The second part is the regulation. The only place that has had that sort of regulation proposed has been in Europe.”

He is also believes the influence of gas hybrid powertrain systems will have an affect on the speed of development of battery recycling because they employ far smaller battery packs in large volumes. Rodysill says: “The question is will the hybrid mix stay around being viable for longer versus full EV and what would the hybrid portfolio look like with small EV platforms, would that provide smaller EV packs to trial that swap-out concept? I think the hybrid mix has to be addressed to address that next curve.”

He also urges government regulators to put more emphasis on a vehicle’s overall carbon footprint rather than just on where the vehicles are made or their working emissions. Hew explains: “They have to watch for whether cheaper EVs have a better or worse carbon footprint than the premium models. Because the same technology goes into both and does the cheaper EV have as good recycling potential as the higher value EVs? That sort of thing has to be watched by regulators.

Rodysill says this approach goes for battery recycling as well, adding: “We must look at not just recycling for recycling stake but what is the overall carbon footprint involved with it. Whether there is a social demand for this or not depends on whether there’s a business case to make for a product that is not just recyclable but also has circularity in a closed loop way.”


About the Author(s)

Paul Myles

European Editor, Informa Group

Paul Myles is an award-winning journalist based in Europe covering all aspects of the automotive industry. He has a wealth of experience in the field working at specialist, national and international levels.

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