Technician use soldering iron to solder metal and wire of lithium-ion rechargeable electric vehicle battery.
What will happen with electric vehicle batteries once they reach their end of life in vehicles? Recent CSA Group research explores circularity in the context of electric vehicle batteries and how standards and safety requirements can support it.

While a shift to electric transportation is considered a move in the right direction, it also poses new challenges including how to handle end-of-life batteries

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Governments around the world are looking at zero-emission vehicles (ZEV) as an important component in the fight against climate change. In Canada, the federal government has set an ambitious target that would see ZEV sales in the light-duty vehicles category reach 100 per cent by 2035.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) projects 300 million electric vehicles will be sold globally by 2050, representing 60 per cent of all new vehicle sales. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles may gain market share in the future, but most of the ZEVs on the road will most likely be battery electric vehicles.

But what will happen with all the batteries once they reach their end of life in vehicles? Recent CSA Group research explores circularity in the context of electric vehicle batteries and how standards and safety requirements can support it.

Circularity of electric vehicle batteries

In the current predominantly linear economy model we take raw materials, turn them into products and, when these products are no longer functional or needed, we throw them away.

Contrary to this approach, in a circular economy, a product at the end of life can be reused, repaired, refurbished, remanufactured or recycled. As materials re-enter the economy, they help reduce the amount of waste, as well as the need for new raw materials.

Electric vehicles on the market today use lithium-ion batteries (LIBs), although other chemistries and designs, including sodium, zinc-air, lithium metal or silicon anodes and solid-state batteries are being explored as well.

Once LIBs retain 80 per cent or less of their charge, they are no longer considered suitable to power electric vehicles.

Depending on the battery design, they can be refurbished and used in electric vehicles again, or they can be repurposed for other applications, such as stationary energy storage or to power wheelchairs and drones.

Once the repurposed LIBs hold only 15-20 per cent of their original charge capacity, they can be recycled to recover valuable materials, including nickel, cobalt, lithium, graphite and manganese.

These recovered materials can then be used to make new LIBs.

Current LIB circularity landscape

As noted in the CSA Group research report Circularity and Recycling of Lithium-Ion Batteries for Electric Vehicles – Standardization and Safety Requirements, only a small number of businesses are focused on circularity and recycling of electric vehicle LIBs at this time.

With an estimated lifespan of 10-20 years in electric vehicles and additional 5-10 years in the energy storage or other applications, most of the electric vehicle LIBs in use today will not reach their end of life for a long while.

At the same time, battery makers continue to improve battery design and chemistry. These can extend battery lifespan, as well as change the content of valuable materials and how they can be recovered.

Understanding the expected LIB lifespan and estimating the number of LIBs coming out of service is critical when planning for circularity, as it impacts the timeline of end-of-life battery supply for reuse/repurpose and recycling businesses. However, no such projections have been developed to date in Canada.

From the perspective of the battery makers, studies indicate that recycling alone will not be able to meet the demand for materials to make new LIBs.

It is estimated that recycling could supply 12 per cent of future demand for cobalt, seven per cent for nickel, and five per cent for lithium. This means mining, processing and refining of raw materials will still play a significant role in supplying battery manufacturers.

Ultimately, both second-life applications and recycling technologies and approaches are very new. Most repurpose/recycling companies are in the commercialization stage and have not yet operated at a significantly large scale.

Identifying the needs for standards

Given the speed at which the LIB reuse and recycling business is developing and considerations for developing provincial and federal legislation targeting electric vehicle LIBs, the CSA Group research report suggests the battery landscape should be revisited on a periodic basis over the next 3-5 years.

This will help identify the need for standards to promote circularity as the industry reaches a sufficient level of maturity and inform the development of a roadmap for LIB circularity standards.

The research report highlights some of the areas where standards, guidelines and policies would be useful in facilitating circularity in the long run. These include battery design for environment and for recycling, battery state of health (SOH) testing, traceability and history of LIBs and calculation and documenting of the carbon footprint and other environmental benefits of reused and repurposed LIBs.

Such documents can support a safe and reliable deployment of new LIB recycling technologies, increase understanding of the LIB recycling industry and help harmonize requirements and regulations across North America.

Read the full CSA Group research report to learn more.