Electric vehicles (EV) are great. Right? EVs reduce carbon emissions that pollute our atmosphere, decrease our dependence on foreign oil, and we save money at the gas pump (by not needing gas).
But, it’s not a perfect eco-friendly system. Currently, there are some environmental factors to consider. EVs still use electricity from the grid to power vehicles, and this electricity could be coming from a coal-fired plant.
A simple mathematical transitive property will tell you that’s now entirely eco-friendly.
Also, there’s that key factor of batteries. As we know, the battery is not only the most important component in an EV, it’s also the most controversial. A lithium-ion battery is heavy and expensive; the production requires a vast amount of energy and raw materials.
A lithium-ion battery is comprised of, well, lithium, cobalt, nickel and other scarce metals that have to be mined and extracted, putting a strain on the world’s supply of these metals. The battery also has a limited service life; it’s difficult to dismantle into its components again—a problem that is currently bothering the EV industry.
Take Tesla: the power cells used in its vehicles currently have a lifespan around the 300,000- to 500,000-mile range. And what do you do with the lithium-ion batteries once they’ve used up their lifespan? Tossing the batteries into a landfill is not an environmental solution.
Recycling, obviously, is a needed factor into the EV eco-friendly transitive property equation.
“We can reduce the carbon footprint of the battery by 40% and regain over 90% of the materials of a battery cell,” Christian Hanisch, CEO of Duesenfeld, told Observer.
The German startup, based in Braunschweig, has developed a highly sustainable way to recycle lithium-ion-batteries. Duesenfeld already recycles batteries for companies with headquarters in the United States. The company’s mid-term goal is to build a network of decentralized recycling facilities in the U.S. Duesenfeld is also looking for financing partners in the United States to set up its own hydrometallurgical plant.
“The Duesenfeld process focuses on recycling as much reusable material as possible while bringing down energy consumption and emissions at the same time,” Hanisch explained. “The long-term goal is to help companies in the U.S. to improve the environmental balance of their batteries and to keep the raw materials used for their products in circulation.”
The nuts-and-bolts behind the recycling process: The lithium-ion batteries are discharged, shredded under nitrogen, and the electrolyte is evaporated and condensed. The dry materials are then separated using their physical properties such as size, weight, magnetism and electric conductivity.
“We avoid incineration processes to save the electrolyte and graphite from their transformation into carbon dioxide and to avoid smelting of aluminum,” Hanisch said.
Duesenfeld has spent 10 years developing its recycling process. At the onset, some 30 researchers and engineers worked for five years on the basics—on three different research projects, which were funded by the German Ministry of the Environment.
“This process enables us to regain not only cobalt, copper and nickel, but also the electrolyte, lithium, manganese, aluminum and graphite,” Hanisch, stated.
Another big EV breakthrough: earlier this year, Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced a potential million-mile battery, trumpeting that it would only lose less than 10% of its energy capacity during its lifetime.
“I am a fan of Elon Musk,” Hanisch proclaimed. “The longer the battery lasts, the better for the user and for the environment. In the end, even that battery will have to be recycled, and the more efficient we can do this, the better it will be, especially for the environment.”
Right now, expensive lithium-ion batteries are the only game in town when it comes to powering EVs. To put it into perspective, currently the cost of a car battery is approximately one-third of the total price of an EV.
Why is this so?
“The energy consumption is mainly driven by the extraction of the primary raw materials and the production process, which requires energy-intensive, climate-controlled, clean rooms,” Hanisch said. What will eventually bring down the costs? “Economies of scale and regaining more valuable battery precursors.”
In the near future, Hanisch sees that EV batteries might also be accompanied by fuel cells, such as in the case of large vehicles like trucks and trains. He also envisions further eco-friendly innovations for EVs, such as, “using renewable energies to manufacture the vehicles and to charge them.”
“As well as lightweighting the car body and structure to substantially save CO2 emissions,” he added.
Meanwhile, EVs are far from a mainstream form of transportation in the United States. Do we need the government to get involved, to provide tax breaks and/or incentives for purchasing electric vehicles and recycling lithium-ion batteries?
“In Europe, it’s mandatory to recycle 50% of the battery materials, and EV manufacturers have to ensure the customer does not have to pay for recycling of his car,” said Hanisch. “This combination leads to a very high recycling rate of EV batteries. I could foresee U.S. states adopting similar positions and programs.”
So, here we are, at the tail-end of 2019. Meanwhile, at the beginning of the 20th century, Thomas Edison was hard at work with the intent of producing an electric car with the longest lasting battery in the world. What happened in between then? Why does it seem like we’re still in the archaic days when it comes to car battery technology—in terms of both manufacturing and recycling?
What has prevented us from figuring it out until now?
“Battery technology couldn’t keep up with the advances in petroleum-based cars,” Hanisch explained about the Edison days. “Car manufacturers traditionally employed lots of mechanical engineers and less electrochemists and chemical engineers.”
Hanisch said in the last 10 years we have moved into the golden age of EV—as we’ve seen technology rapidly advance. And, along with that, we are now seeing advancements in recycling.
“Our technology has the potential to recycle 90% of the battery materials,” Hanisch stated. “There is still plenty room for improvement, but as we are gaining market share in Europe with our eco-friendly recycling method—electric vehicles are back on track.”