The Afterlife of Electric Car Batteries

Published Aug 18, 2020

When electric vehicles start retiring, what happens to their batteries? Transportation expert Hanjiro Ambrose discusses the importance of recycling EV batteries.

In this episode
  • Before the current pandemic Colleen spent some time interviewing experts on the West Coast
  • We talk electric vehicles, their batteries, and how to recycle them
  • Hanjiro dives into battery details and his hopes for a more sustainable EV recycling system
Timing and cues

Opener (0:00-0:35)
Intro (0:35-2:50)
Interview part 1(2:50-13:06)
Break (13:06-13:57)
Interview part 2 (13:57-23:23)
Segment throw (23:23-23:27)
Voting rights segment (23:27-27:35)
Outro (27:35-28:30)

Related content
Show credits

Voting rights segment: Jiayu Liang
Editing: Omari Spears
Additional editing and music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Jiayu Liang and Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes Host: Colleen MacDonald

Full transcript

Let’s kick this episode off with a fun fact. Electric vehicles, or EVs, are a lot older than you might think. I mean really old. Inventors in Europe and the US were making their own versions of electric vehicles as early as 1828. This was a half-century before the first gasoline-fueled or internal combustion engine car was built.

But these early prototypes looked very different from the modern car and weren’t practical for getting around. So even though the concept of electric cars is nearly two centuries old, the modern EV only started being mass produced in the US about a decade ago.

Electric cars are an important solution to climate change because even when the electricity used to fuel an EV comes from a dirty coal-dominated electricity grid, EVs still produce less global warming pollution than their gas-powered counterparts. And the emissions performance of EVs will only get better as solar and wind energy continue their growth across the country.

One aspect of electric vehicles that we haven’t grappled with yet is how to handle the wave of EVs that will retire soon after their 12 year run. Right now, there’s no comprehensive answer for what to do with an old EV. Specifically, there’s no regulation at the federal level for dealing with their batteries, once they’re no longer on the road. It’s not exactly like chucking out a double A battery when your remote stops working.

Exploring this issue today is transportation technology expert Dr. Hanjiro Ambrose, an Air Resources Engineer at the California Air Resources Board and former Hitz Family Climate Fellow at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He researches strategies for battery recycling and reuse when electric vehicles are retired, including their economic and environmental implications. We talk about what happens inside a battery as it gets older and loses capacity, where the responsibility for proper disposal should fall, and how batteries might be given a second life.

Colleen: Hanjiro, welcome to the podcast.

Hanjiro: Thanks for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.

Colleen: I'd like to start with just some battery basics. What are the batteries that are in use today?

Hanjiro: Well, today there's really three chemistries or types of batteries that are prevalent in the market, meaning that they have a big market share. The first one is the oldest one that's been around for a long, long time, hundreds of years, and that's the lead acid battery, the kind of battery you find in your car that powers your car to start it up. The other batteries that we have a lot of are nickel metal hydride batteries, which have been around for about 40 years, they're the kinds that we first had a lot of in portable phones, especially the ones you would have around your house and maybe you'd leave it and then the battery would be dead.

And then today what we see a majority of really taking over the market are lithium batteries and lithium batteries offer a lot of performance improvements from some of the previous technologies. And we're seeing them in everything from consumer electronics to personal devices like drones and skateboards to large format batteries in electric vehicles, trucks, buses, and other types of transportation devices.

Colleen: Is there a difference when we think about EV batteries? Is there a difference between like what's in my Prius and what's in an electric car?

Hanjiro: Yeah, actually there are. I mean, the Prius batteries were originally these nickel-metal hydride batteries which are a little different from the lithium batteries we use today. The main benefit of lithium batteries is that they can store a lot more energy for the same amount of weight. So since, when you make the car heavier, it tends to consume more energy, which has this feedback loop of letting you drive less and less far. So a battery that gives you more juice for less weight is a big bonus. And lithium batteries have that going for them, in addition, that they don't have what we call a memory effect.

So you might remember that often if you had those phones at home that were wireless, if you left it on the charger a lot, often you'd find after a while the battery wouldn't have much energy in it. It would just basically get drained right away. And that was because they had this memory, where if you cycle them between a certain point again and again, eventually they wouldn't store as much. Lithium batteries tend to have a lot less memory in that they tend to for a long time, maybe anywhere from 8 to 18 years, be able to deliver something like 80% of their original storage capacity. Meaning that you could get about 80% of whatever you originally could out of them again and again and again for that long, which is a lot longer than current batteries on the market today.

Colleen: what are the environmental concerns around EV batteries? And how do we get rid of them? Can they be recycled, reused, repurposed? And are there legitimate concerns about what happens when the battery is dead and it has to go someplace else?

Hanjiro: That's an important question and definitely a little bit of an onion to unpack. There are environmental impacts and significant opportunities for environmental impacts associated with batteries. And we should be concerned in that we should be aware of them because EVs are a strategy for reducing the pollution and emissions associated with our transportation sector. And so to the extent that making a vehicle that has a lot of battery or more material in it and more extensive production impacts, we should be concerned about the extent to where burden is shifting because often the supply chain for these vehicles and for these technologies is not in the same place that they get deployed.

Meaning that while when I deploy an EV in California I get some benefits for climate emissions and probably some benefits for air quality in a local air shed. The impacts of producing the batteries and the vehicles are actually felt way up the supply chain probably in a developing or industrializing nation. And that means that we should be concerned, I think, about the equity and the environmental impacts associated with them. Now, that being said, when we talk about the end of life electric vehicle batteries, they're absolutely recyclable. And we can do a good job at closing the loop on recycling.

Colleen: So what's in the batteries that would need to be disassembled or recycled?

Hanjiro: Well, the batteries are full of valuable minerals. The majority of the battery is actually aluminum. But there's a handful of elements or minerals in the battery which we usually refer to as critical, and critical has a specific meaning here in that the supply of those minerals is constrained. The distribution of those minerals puts it at risk, meaning that there's concentration.

And so the Department of Energy and the Department of Interior recognize a list of 35 minerals which they call critical energy minerals, and are deemed important to the national security of the United States. That includes the major materials in the cathode in the electrodes of the electric vehicle battery. So that the key elements that are in the electric vehicle battery, so lithium, cobalt, and manganese, as well as copper and aluminum are all included in the critical minerals list. And so when you talk about what's in a battery, the key things that we usually want to recover are these minerals that are high value and are constrained.

And recently, I think the focus on those is really on a couple things. One is cobalt. There's a lot of cobalt in lithium batteries. There's more cobalt in the consumer electronic type than there are in the electric vehicle type in that the chemistries are different. But cobalt is a challenge because the majority of cobalt currently comes from one region. It comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Sub-Saharan Africa. And the extraction of cobalt in the DRC is associated with a lot of negative social inequity impacts in that there's informal mining and use of child labor in that supply chain. And it's a huge amount of the cobalt both the global reserves as well as the global supply. And so it's a big challenge for the producers to identify sourcing that is responsible.

Colleen: Is's in the ground, so you have to dig down. How deep in the ground is it?

Hanjiro: Cobalt is it's actually accessible from what's called artisanal mining, meaning that you can access it with hand tools. It's within 100 feet of the soil.

Colleen: Is it toxic?

Hanjiro: The cobalt itself is not necessarily, although it is in that the mining processes are toxic and that it does expose other types of heavy metal dust and there's been studies that have looked at the environmental impacts of communities of cobalt mining and, yeah, there are issues with toxicity and hazardous exposure for miners. And there's both what we call industrial and they call artisanal mining of cobalt. So industrial is what you might think of as more traditional mining, you know, big trucks and equipment. And artisanal is this informal mining that occurs primarily by hand. And while artisanal mining is a problem because generally you don't have the labor practices or enforcement, you don't have the personal protective equipment or other types of standards you might have in industrial mining.

At any rate, the other two minerals really are nickel and lithium, which should become the bigger demand pieces. Nickel and cobalt both are coproduced primarily, meaning that they're produced alongside other minerals in the same process. Nickel as well is highly concentrated and where it comes from, which is a source of concern because if there's only one supply then if there's a disruption it can make a big hiccup in the global supply chain. Lithium is another concern mostly because of the fact that there has been volatility in the lithium market with respect to pricing of lithium. So a lot of people are very interested in recovering with him as well even though lithium is a relatively small component of the price of a battery.

Colleen: Are there any issues with lithium?

Hanjiro: Lithium is one of those ones where it doesn't seem to be a strong constraint or a binding constraint on battery production. The studies out there have said something like maybe a billion 40-kilowatt-hour batteries with given current material supplies. My own research has suggested that we might make it out to 2075 before we need significant recycling of lithium. So we have a lot of lithium available.

Colleen: How do you recycle a battery?

Hanjiro: You recycle the battery actually pretty much like you recycle most things in that you break it down, you separate it, and then you try to extract some of the precious materials back. And so the standard process you can think about is three stages. The first stage of most electronic waste or electronics recycling is some type of shredding or disassembly. There's some people who are currently investigating automated robots for this. Apple has a plant in Texas where they're doing recycling, automated disassembling products for recycling. And basically, this is just separating it up by brute force or more elegant means.

And then usually there's two different stages where you do some additional separation. You can do that by ferrous means, meaning magnets or you could do it through size or weight base separation, so basically just screening. And then you'll usually use either heat or chemicals to extract the precious minerals. The most common way today is what most people call smelting and smelters use what's called pyrometallurgic techniques, pyro meaning fire. So, this is like 1500 degrees Celsius, and we just basically cook the metals and that causes certain metals to come out and other metals to be lost into a slag or a waste product, right?

And so, pyrometallurgic recovery is effective at recovering some of the highest value materials. So the nickel and the cobalt, the cobalt is the most expensive component of the cathode, usually can be recovered through pyrometallurgic means. But some of the material is lost, including the lithium is usually lost although it can be recovered later. The other pathway usually uses chemicals, we call it hydro metallurgic or liquid, and that uses a chemical or a leaching agent to separate the alloys. And this is really promising in that you can be optimal and you can be specific in that you can make sure you tailor the process to get all the materials out. The challenge of that being that as battery designs evolve and change and everybody has their own battery, you need a bunch of different processes in order to make it work.


Colleen: So you have a battery that has passed its usefulness for my electric vehicle. So you can then, by some recycling process, sort of give that battery new life?

Hanjiro: Yeah, you can. So, I mean, think about a battery, let's break it down a little bit, an electrochemical cell in a battery is kind of like Pong. You have these two boards and a ball that bounces back and forth between them. It really is. So what you have are these ions, right, these cations of lithium that are bouncing back and forth between the cathode and an anode between these two electrodes. And over time, some of the lithium gets lost, it gets built up, it no longer goes back and forth. You know, you can imagine these electrodes are kind of like sponges and they get to be like sponges in your kitchen sink, you want to throw them away, they start to get really built up and really cruddy looking.

Usually, when we think about a battery in an EV when it's worn out, we say it probably only has maybe 70% to 80% of its original capacity. So when I take the battery out of the vehicle, the things I can recycle are, first, all the packaging material that's around the battery. So it's mostly just aluminum casings and things like that. But inside the battery are these two electrodes where it had all the important minerals, the electrodes.

And these electrodes are basically foils, copper and aluminum, that have a slurry spread on them. You can kind of imagine it looks like a black jam, and that's the electrode materials. And so the idea here is that I can take the electrodes out and I can basically, using physical means by grinding it up and separating it by mass, I can isolate that slurry, that material I painted onto the electrode, take it, add more lithium to it because some of the lithium was lost, and then slap it right back on a new electrode and make a new battery. And that actually has been shown in the lab to be feasible. And there's some evidence that it looks really beneficial from an environmental standpoint.

And like I said, the main challenge is the fact that batteries have been changing. And one thing that's happening is using less cobalt actually would be better. So, as I said, cobalt is the most expensive part of an EV battery. So, yes, there's a good motivation to recycle them. But also, there's a good motivation for manufacturers to stop using cobalt.

Colleen: I bet you have ideas about how to manage this process beautifully. How would you do it?

Hanjiro: Wow, that's a good question. Well, I'll start with the way that most of it happens these days. There's either usually restrictions on waste types is the kind of normal way we do this, right? We'll say something's hazardous waste so you can only deal with it certain ways, you have to be a certain person to carry it. In the European Union, the slightly different way they've gone about is to think about producer responsibility. Producer responsibility just basically means that whoever made it is responsible for it at the end.

And so this is basically saying to whoever made the battery or the EV, you know, for your Nissan Leaf, “hey Nissan, you're responsible for this battery in the end.” I am skeptical of producer responsibility because I don't think it's actually been really effective at moving the needle. I think if there's not proper economic incentives to actually deal with these devices in a responsible and sustainable manner, producer responsibility is basically meaningless. So I envision a system where we have mandated and standardized producer responsibility, meaning that right now there's a challenge with data sharing and everybody has proprietary processes.

But if we can all come together and agree that the goal is we need to create a sustainable and responsible way to dispose of or manage these batteries at the end of life, then we can start to share, in a transparent way, the best practices, the data that's available, etc. So I think, for me, I think there's going to be specific measures. There's going to be status standardization, there's going to be mandatory disclosure and reporting, and there's going to have to be extended producer responsibility that includes some type of core charge or economic incentive.

So core charge, you know, it's kind of what we do now for batteries. So if you think about your car battery, when you return your battery or you buy a new battery, you pay a core charge in most states, which represents a deposit on the battery, ensuring that you're going to return it and also pays for some of the disposal.

Colleen: You're not talking about EV batteries. You're talking about...

Hanjiro: No. I'm talking about for automotive batteries. Yeah. And I think something like that is going to be necessary for EV batteries. Something that makes sure there's an economic incentive that they are managed responsibly. If we envision that electric vehicles are the technology that are enabling us to have a clean and sustainable transportation system, then we need to develop the supply chain for electric vehicles domestically. And we shouldn't be trying to offload that production to the area with the lowest environmental standards or the lowest labor costs, I mean. So I think we have an obligation to make sure that we manage these responsibly and, as I said, where we can see them in our backyard, and we do it right.

Colleen: Do you see this happening anywhere now?

Hanjiro: I don't know if it's happening per se, I see pushes for it. In California right now, we're working on developing policy to manage EV batteries in the state. So I think that's an important first step. We are seeing a lot of startups in the space as far as new companies emerging that are offering promising technologies for recovering materials from batteries.

And on the other hand, there's also interest in developing the supply chain from a material standpoint. I think a lot of people are interested in getting a battery plant built in their state. I see a lot of governors that are obviously very interested in getting manufacturing developed.

Colleen: When did EVs first come on the market and what has happened to those batteries? Or are they all still alive and running?

Hanjiro: This is actually a great question. EVs haven't been around that long. The modern EV started selling in about 2012. So those vehicles have been around for eight years. The average vehicle in the U.S. are on the road for about 12 years. So meaning that modern EVs haven't even been on the road long enough for them to retire in mass.

So they're coming quickly. But currently, no. And the batteries that have been retired, that have come off the road due to accidents or quality controls or other types of issues generally have moved into a variety of experiments and different types of ad hoc things. Once a battery goes for 10 to 12 years in a vehicle, it might still be useful for 5 or 6 more years or maybe more in a low power application. Low power means that something like a stationary source. So to put in perspective, running your car, your EV, your Tesla Model S, takes about an order of magnitude more power than running your home. So if I take that battery out and I use it for home storage, maybe to allow you to charge batteries during the day and run your TV at night, maybe there's a way in which batteries could have a second life and there's a lot of interest in that, a lot of potential for that in addition to the recycling side.

Colleen: So at some point we're going to have a lot of batteries to work with, to figure out.

Hanjiro: Yeah, it's going to come. It's going to come very quickly. And, I mean, it's compounding, right, because we've had very slow rollout of electric vehicles and it's increasing very quickly. And there's a couple things that are happening that are compounding that. One, the size of batteries in a passenger electric vehicle has almost tripled in the last eight years. So when we started making EVs in 2012, they usually had about 25-kilowatt-hours and they would go 100 miles.

Colleen: So you're talking about size in terms of the amount of power, not the actual size.

Hanjiro: Both.

Colleen: You're talking about both. Okay.

Hanjiro: Yeah, both. The actual size of the battery has increased as well in that the mass of the battery has actually increased a little bit but the energy density has increased a lot, meaning that they've packed a lot more material into the battery. And so yeah, the batteries are just a lot bigger. The battery systems are a lot bigger. And so we're putting 100 to plus-100-kilowatt-hour batteries in passenger vehicles. The other thing that's occurred that's really accelerating battery retirement is heavy-duty. So if you think like an EV might have a 50-kilowatt-hour battery, a bus has a 500-kilowatt-hour battery.

Colleen: And currently, we don't have a comprehensive plan for what to do with these batteries.

Hanjiro: There's no comprehensive strategy for dealing with these. There's pieces that are occurring in the policy realm.

Colleen: I mean, where do they go?

Hanjiro: Currently, automakers are taking the batteries back, generally, because they don't want the batteries to end up in some random waste stream. And they also have a lot of intellectual property tied up in those batteries. So they tend to just want to take them back. So that's okay right now. That's kind of working out. And as I said, there haven't been that many retirements. So we haven't really seen it occur. But I think what we're going to see in the near term is actually a lot of batteries getting stored. Because there's not a good option to it, so we'll probably just sit on them for a while and wait until better options become available.

Colleen: Well, Hanjiro, thank you for joining me on the podcast. This was really interesting.

Hanjiro: My pleasure.

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