Catalyst
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Catalyst

What Happens to All Those EV Batteries?

Image courtesy of Electrek.

This post is part of a collaboration with Climate Now to produce a podcast series on the intersection of transportation and energy. These next few posts will summarize the most insightful tidbits from these conversations with various experts.

I encourage you to listen to the full episodes yourself, as well as Climate Now’s other content. It’s chock full of science and data and the nitty gritty stuff that gets glossed over in most media coverage. Without further ado…

While it seems obvious in retrospect, Tesla’s first Gigafactory half a decade ago sparked broader awareness of how important controlling the battery supply chain will be.

Recycling is appealing because it offsets a small part of the need to develop new mines, can be more environmentally friendly, and ensures a secure domestic supply of battery materials. The mining process extracts and concentrates minute amounts of key minerals from ore, whereas in recycling the minerals are already present in purified form.

A decade on from the first Model S, we’ve seen relatively few electric vehicle batteries reach end-of-life. As a result, most recycling today processes manufacturing scrap, which can result in yield loss of 5–10% in each step. This explains why even OEMS which are just starting to produce EVs at scale are striking recycling deals.

Given that battery chemistries are evolving rapidly, recyclers will need to improve reverse logistics and sorting processes. Cell-to-pack integrations will also present a new challenge for recycling companies since they’ll have to come up with ways to separate the battery pack from the vehicle chassis.

A fundamental challenge with recycling is that manufacturers are incentivized to reduce the cost of material inputs, which directly reduces the per-unit revenue for recycling companies. For example, the industry is seeing a major shift towards lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries because iron is cheaper and more abundant than nickel and cobalt. LFP is also more reliable and less likely to experience thermal runaway.

To counteract this phenomenon, recycling companies are expanding upstream, turning their recovered materials into anode, cathode, and other battery components. For example, Redwood Materials just inked a deal to supply Panasonic with recycled copper foil.

Finally, we asked Andy about his take on second-life batteries, where EV batteries are repurposed at the end of their useful life for another application. He believes that second-life and recycling will complement each other, and since they require different skill sets it’s likely that different companies will specialize in one or the other. Andy suggested that second-life companies are more likely to succeed if they repurpose batteries for less strenuous mobility applications rather than stationary storage, since stationary storage must compete with many other technologies in the wholesale power market.

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