The opportunities of electric vehicle battery recycling

views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“Our researchers have highlighted the importance of ensuring that the UK has recycling capability to deal with the waste management challenges that end-of-life batteries present.”

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With the UK’s announcement that it plans to accelerate the transition to electric vehicles, the race is on for automakers to bring new models to market. By legislating for the discontinuation of the sale of internal combustion engine vehicles by 2030, a clear signal has been given that manufacturers need to transform not only their product offer, but also their supply chains. As the automotive industry adjusts to the new post-Brexit landscape, the UK is engaged with other nations around the world, in a race to capitalise upon this transition and ensure that it is competitive against other potential manufacturing locations.

Nations around the world have ambitious goals to manufacture the components for electric vehicles, to benefit from the jobs and economic prosperity that will come from producing the next generation of clean mobility solutions. A key component in the EV value chain, is the Lithium Ion Batteries.

Battery manufacturing is seen as key capability and prerequisite for nations wishing to manufacture electric vehicles. Countries around the world are rushing to develop “Gigafactories” to produce EV batteries at scale. Because not all batteries that come off the production line pass quality control tests, integrated recycling of Lithium Ion batteries is essential for efficient battery manufacture. Furthermore, our researchers have highlighted the importance of ensuring that the UK has recycling capability to deal with the waste management challenges that end-of-life batteries present.

This is also a great opportunity to produce a supply of critical materials for manufacturing new electric vehicle batteries. As the UK doesn’t possess many indigenous supplies of the materials for manufacturing EV batteries, in future years, recycling batteries will provide an important source of these technology metals.

Location is also crucial – research from our ReLiB project shows that locating recycling plants relative to the waste streams that supply them crucially affects the techno-economics of recycling. The Midlands, is ideally placed in the centre of the Nation, to collect waste from across the UK in the early stages of developing a UK recycling industry.

But it is not just about locating the plant in the right place, it is also about building it at the right scale and at the right time. Build too big a plant before the waste is available to process and the asset sits idle, becoming a liability.

The other consideration is that as battery recycling technology is developing so quickly, more economically and environmentally efficient processes are soon to become available. Our work on automated dismantling of EV batteries using robotics and AI dramatically speeds the time taken to decommission EV batteries, and will radically improve the economics of this part of the operation. Furthermore, our research shows that current recycling process are ill-suited to dealing with volumes of EV batteries that will result from the clean mobility revolution. Current processes based on “shredding” batteries to produce black-mass result in a product that is more challenging to recycle economically. More value can be retained, and the economics of recycling radically improved, if we can separate the components of the battery more carefully, prior to employing a range of new recycling processes.

In short, it is essential for policy makers to aid in the construction of battery recycling capacity at the right time, in the right place, at the right scale and with the right technology for the UK to be competitive in this arena.

The Midlands, with its long history of automotive innovation, cluster of energy research as the ‘EnergyCapital’ of the UK, and significant concentration of expertise at the University of Birmingham is ideally placed to be at the heart of this revolution.

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  • Edward Shelley
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    1. At 11:34AM on 14 January 2021, Edward Shelley wrote

    Hi Paul and Gavin,

    Really glad to read this article. I am responsible for promoting the ULEV car lease scheme at the university.

    I'd be interested to learn more about your research and its development in the future. What's the best way to do that?

    Best regards,

    Edward

  • andrew bradshaw
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    2. At 12:18PM on 25 January 2021, andrew bradshaw wrote

    Hi both,

    I've become aware that Redditch has become the first location in UK for rollout of EV scooters (BIRD ) to encourage less reliance on cars, perhaps an opportunity to engage with a global scheme at a local level, for end of life battery recycling planning?

    Certainly fits with the West Midlands as a prime location and our research at Birmingham,

    Andy

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    Critical minerals such as cobalt and lithium are found in electric car batteries. If we don't want to keep mining the planet for new ones, we'll have to recycle them. To decrease the need for additional mining, scientists believe we'll need to improve our recycling of EV batteries when they die.

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