An article from The Economist:
Despite the pandemic, the popularity of electric vehicles (EVs) has continued to grow—around 2.5m battery-electric and plug-in-hybrid cars were sold around the world in 2020. Analysts reckon that, by 2030, 8% of the 1.4bn cars on the road will be electric, rising to more than 30% by 2040.
Replacing the world’s gas-guzzlers with electrically powered vehicles is no doubt good for the environment. But a new headache is on the way: what to do with all these electric vehicles at the ends of their lives?
Although as much as 95% of the materials in a petrol or diesel car can be shredded and recycled in traditional scrapyards, electric vehicles pose a more complex problem. Their electronic components contain a wider mix of materials, including lithium and cobalt in batteries and rare-earth metals in motors. Shredding EVs and sorting through them is tricky.
In a pair of stories in this week’s Science section, we examine how a new industry is emerging to tackle the problems of EV waste.
In our main story, we consider the various ways in which companies propose to recycle lithium-ion batteries, the workhorses of the EV world. Because they are inflammable, these batteries have so far been very difficult to handle. In a second story, we look at the rare-earth metals within the magnets in the motors of EVs. Despite their high cost, these metals, such as neodymium, are hardly ever recycled, but researchers in Birmingham have developed a clever new way to do it. Tipping neodymium-containing magnets into a hydrogen-filled vessel ends up creating a powder that can be processed straight back into magnets.
These new methods will no doubt be useful. But the long-term solution to managing EV waste will be to design recyclability into the vehicles from the start.
An EV’s battery pack is made from many individual electrochemical cells. The cells can be configured in many different ways and different battery packs will have variations in their chemistries. They are generally not made to be taken apart, which makes disassembly difficult and hard to automate.
In the future, standardising the configuration of battery packs and designing them with recycling in mind would clearly make breaking them down into their various components a more straightforward task. Disassembly before processing would also allow some items, like cathodes, to be reused in their entirety, and others, such as electrical connections, to be separated at an early stage to recover their copper. This reduces the number of different materials that go on to be shredded, which in turn should allow those remaining to be recovered more efficiently and in a purer form.