Driving the right outcomes: dealing with electric vehicle battery waste

by Corporate Waste Solutions
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The global presence of electric vehicles continues to increase. According to the International Energy Agency, the global threshold of one million electric cars on the road was exceeded in 2015, closing at 1.26 million.

Ambitious targets and policy support have contributed to lower vehicle costs, extended vehicle ranges and reduced consumer barriers in a number of countries. During 2015, the market share for electric vehicles reached 23 percent in Norway and nearly 10 percent in the Netherlands. China’s growing electric car sales in 2015 made it the main market worldwide, ahead of the US for the first time. China is also home to the strongest global deployment of e-scooters and electric buses.

UPTAKE OF ELECTRIC VEHICLES IN AUSTRALIA

From an Australian perspective, electric vehicle sales have been considerably slower to date, with Australian sales in 2014 equating to 948, representing approximately 0.32 percent of the 2014 global electric vehicle market. Of the approximately 1.08 million new vehicles sold in the Australian market during 2014, the proportion relating to electric vehicles represents less than 0.09 percent.

Despite this slow start, the uptake of electric vehicles in Australia, when linked to a cleaner supply of electricity, has been recognised as having the potential to provide emission reductions of 16 percent and 47 percent in the Passenger and Light Commercial Vehicle segments by 2050.

This will impact one of Australia’s fastest growing sources of emissions – the transport sector, which currently represents 17 percent of Australia’s emissions and is projected to rise by a further six percent by 2020, reaching 96 Mt CO2-e (million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent). A greater uptake of electric vehicles is also seen as having the potential to address Australia’s current fuel security issues, due to Australia’s high fuel import dependency.

As a consequence, we are likely to see increased measures driven by government targeted at both the demand and supply sides to support an increased uptake of electric vehicles in Australia.

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ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS ASSOCIATED WITH END-OF-LIFE ELECTRIC VEHICLE BATTERIES

Despite the emissions-reduction benefits associated with electric vehicles sales, there are growing concerns regarding the environmental impacts of end-of-life batteries from electric vehicles.

While sealed electric vehicle batteries – typically comprising nickel metal hydride (‘NiMH’) or lithium- ion (‘Li-ion’) – pose limited risk to the environment and human health, exposed batteries and the release of their contents to the atmosphere, such as when dumped in landfills, can have serious environmental impacts.

Key concerns relating to lithium and lithium compounds include:

  • Environmental impacts: elemental (metallic lithium) is easily oxidised in strongly exothermic reactions. Reaction with water is particularly dangerous because of simultaneous heat development and formation of hydrogen gas, which can result in explosion or fire.
  • Occupational health impacts: elemental lithium causes severe eye and skin burns. Industrial exposures to lithium may occur during extraction of lithium from ores, preparation of various lithium compounds, welding, brazing, enamelling and the use of lithium hydrides
  • Human health impacts: lithium affects the nervous system.

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CURRENT APPROACHES TO END-OF-LIFE ELECTRIC VEHICLE BATTERY MANAGEMENT

In response to the increasing quantities of end-of-life electric vehicle batteries and recognition of the importance of appropriately managing the potential environmental impacts from this waste, an increasing number of recycling initiatives are emerging. Examples of these initiatives include:

  • Recognising the importance of having a well- developed recycling program in place for lithium-ion batteries, Tesla Motors has entered into a series of partnerships with technology and recycling companies, primarily in North America and Europe to date, to enable a closed-loop recycling program for used batteries. Companies such as Umicore are able to recycle the old batteries into completely reusable materials and, as a result, substantially reduce the carbon footprint of manufacturing the lithium-ion batteries. For example, the cobalt in the batteries is used to make up lithium cobalt oxide that is resold to battery manufacturers. As Tesla’s electric vehicle range continues to expand globally, we are likely to see a similar expansion of its closed loop recycling programs into these markets as it looks to balance this growth with environmentally responsible activities.
  • Large auto manufacturers such as Toyota and Honda are establishing reverse supply chains to ensure that end-of-life EDV (electric drive vehicle) batteries are recovered and properly recycled.
  • Companies already in the battery recycling business are extending their operations to include the processing of large-format NiMH and Li-ion batteries as long as they are broken down to smaller components. The constituents of electric vehicle batteries (mostly nickel from NiMH batteries and cobalt from Li-ion batteries) provide an economic incentive for recycling.
  • Companies with smelting operations are also interested in recycling electric vehicle batteries due to of their metal content.

It is recognised that the recycling and processing infrastructure for electric vehicle batteries is still in its infancy. However, with the volume of electric vehicle battery waste continuing to grow significantly over the coming decades, it’s expected that recycling opportunities in this market will continue to expand.

Likewise, we are also likely to see best practice management of the associated environmental issues associated with the end-of-life management of these batteries to improve and become increasingly standardised.

Shailesh Tyagi is a partner at Deloitte Sustainability Services.

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