Automakers are racing to design their next generation of electric vehicles. But they seem to be missing a critical step: They’re not designing their batteries for easy disassembly when an EV is ready to get recycled. That makes it much harder and more expensive to recycle the batteries. And if the batteries don’t get recycled and just end up in landfills, then how green are electric vehicles?
Tesla is using cell-to-pack technology to package its batteries, which is great for getting a lighter, tighter, lower-cost solution. BYD is promoting its cell-to-body technology that will eliminate structural parts and make room for more cells. But when it comes time to recycle their batteries it’s going to take saws, crowbars and chisels to get those cells out of those cars.
Worse, most battery packs are glued in place, and then the packs are filled with foam or “black gunk,” presumably for insulation and fire retardation. So even if you’re able to cut the pack out of the car, it’s still a major, time-consuming hassle to get to the cells themselves. Maybe all this can be automated at some point, but it’s not where we’re at today.
Cell-to-pack and cell-to-body designs also mean that if a cell goes bad there’s no way to replace it. Those EVs could be at a big disadvantage in the used-car market if the second or third owners shun them due to their batteries possibly deteriorating over time. Low residual values in the used-car market also hurt the value of brand-new cars, especially when it comes to leasing. Leasing companies use residual values to determine lease rates on new cars. Lower residual values result in higher monthly payments.
Automakers that package their batteries in modules that can be unbolted and removed from a car, like General Motors’ Ultium pack, may actually have an advantage. The same goes for EVs that are designed for swappable batteries, as NIO has pioneered. Though these designs are heavier and bulkier, they may actually have a better life-cycle benefit for the environment and for car owners.
Battery recycling is going to be a critical part of making EVs viable and sustainable. And that’s especially true for nickel manganese cobalt (NMC) batteries. Those materials are very valuable, which makes recycling them very profitable. At some point, when there are millions of EVs on the road reaching the end of their useful lives, those recycled materials could allow us to throttle back on mining virgin materials. And recycled materials have a 40% lower carbon footprint than virgin ones, which makes them all the more beneficial.
This brings up an interesting point: Other battery chemistries, like iron-phosphate, lithium-sodium and lithium-sulfur, may not have much recycling value at all. Those are cheap, plentiful materials that are great for slashing the cost of making batteries, but there’s not much profit in recycling them – if there’s any at all.
In North America, several companies are getting into the EV battery recycling business such as Li-cycle and Redwood Materials, but a company called Cirba Solutions is already doing it. The good news is that, even at extremely low volumes, it’s already profitable at recycling NMC batteries. It has six recycling centers in place in North America and is ready to invest another $1 billion over the next decade to open more.
The opportunities in battery recycling kind of reminds me of how mini-mills took the steel industry by storm. Those mills use scrap metal as their primary source of raw materials, and they can produce steel cheaper than the integrated mills. We could see something similar happen with batteries, where batteries with recycled material are cheaper than ones with virgin materials.
But it all starts with designing EVs with service and end-of-life in mind. Automakers today are using DFA, or design for assembly, to make better EVs. Going forward they need to think more about design for disassembly.
John McElroy (pictured, above left) is the President of Blue Sky Productions, which produces “Autoline Daily” and “Autoline After Hours” on www.Autoline.tv and the Autoline Network on YouTube. The podcast “The Industry” is available on most podcast platforms.