29 Nov 2019

World must act to prevent a mountain of EV batteries

From Nine To Noon, 9:28 am on 29 November 2019

Researchers are warning that as more and more consumers switch to electric vehicles, better methods of recycling their batteries are urgently needed to prevent a mountain of waste.

One million EVs sold around the world in 2017 including 546 here, up from 63 in 2016. In September this year, 605 electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles were sold in New Zealand.

Fuel taxes contribute much to the National Land Transport Fund.

Fuel taxes contribute much to the National Land Transport Fund. Photo: 123RF

Research from the University of Birmingham say that when the batteries from the 2017 fleet begin to wear down in around 20 years, they'll create 250,000 tonnes of waste - and that's just from that one year.

Kathryn talked with the study's lead author, Gavin Harper, a research fellow at the University of Birmingham's Faraday Institution. 

He says that while it’s a significant amount of waste, there’s also potential for putting it to good.

“We’re not just talking of a waste that needs disposal, it needs treatment and handling. But we’ve got a fantastic opportunity to either remanufacture EV batteries into new EV batteries, to reuse them in other applications - for example, bolstering our grid and enabling the transition to more renewable energy sources.”

Dr Harper says there are a number of valuable and critical materials in the batteries that come from different sources around the world.

One of the co-authors of the study said electrification of just two percent of the global car fleet would represent a line of cars that could stretch around the circumference of the earth. That means, in order to effectively recycle batteries, the process will need to be automated. 

The current process for recycling an end-of-life car, stripping it, crushing it, and recycling the metal, won’t work for EVs, Dr Harper says. Firstly, the batteries pose serious hazards and risks and have to be handled sensitively, and secondly because EVs use magnets in the motors that would stick to crushing machines and degrade them. 

“I think that the vehicle recycling industry will start to become aware of this challenge as more EVs come through the system. It’s really about thinking around what’s the smart way to aggregate and process those batteries.”