Recycling of materials in batterier

No electric cars without battery recycling

25 June, 2018

Electric vehicles are seen as an obvious solution to confront climate challenges. This, in turn, increases demand for batteries, which must also satisfy requirements for sustainability, both in terms of the climate and socially. But do they actually?

Vehicles account for a large proportion of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and are an important piece of the puzzle to achieve climate goals. In 2050, global demand for passenger transport and cargo is expected to have risen by 50 % and 80 %, respectively – a challenge that needs to be addressed. 

Recycling of lithium-ion batteries

Electric cars with lithium-ion batteries are spearheading solutions to reduce CO2 emissions, but the materials in the batteries constitute an environmental problem in themselves. Today’s production of lithium-ion batteries largely uses virgin materials which require a great deal of energy and result in significant emissions of CO2. Another challenge is availability. Many of the materials are scarce and some of the countries where they are extracted are plagued by conflict, corruption, poor working conditions and child labour.  

An important aspect in overcoming the problem of availability is improved battery recycling. This means that valuable materials are not squandered and companies are provided with alternatives to resource-hungry and socially unsustainable raw materials. Researchers at Swerea are working to identify efficient processes for the recovery of elements such as lithium, cobalt, nickel, graphite and fluoride, which are all constituents of lithium-ion batteries. Stringent environmental requirements are driving development, but cost, weight, environmental impact, social sustainability and battery lifespans are crucial to what level of sustainability that can be achieved within the transport sector. 

“In Sweden, we have a well-functioning collection system, favourable basic research environments, and several major vehicle manufacturers producing electric or hybrid vehicles. This gives our researchers good opportunities to find solutions that work throughout the chain,” says Swerea researcher Guozhu Ye.

Be competitive with battery recycling

Requirements for safety are also important. If, for example, fluoride comes into contact with gas, it can produce toxic compounds, but increased recycling can reduce the risk of hazardous waste. The vision is to achieve full recyclability, not solely for lithium-ion batteries but also for alkaline batteries, 4,000 tonnes of which are collected in Sweden annually. Industries which adopt new methods early on can gain a head-start along with increased competitive power.  

“Research in this area is imperative. A well-functioning transport logistics system is and has historically been a prerequisite for an efficient and growing economy, both locally and globally, and contributes to social and economic prosperity,” concludes Guozhu Ye.