Electric Car Batteries: The brilliant, the good and the ugly
The wave of Teslas and other electric vehicles (EVs) circulating on UK roads has marked the beginning of a new era in transportation.
These emission-free, quiet, and mechanically simple vehicles are a game-changer, especially considering the astronomical petrol prices we are currently seeing.
However, there are issues that need resolution before EVs fulfil their environmental promises, particularly with the manufacturing and recycling of the large lithium-ion (Li-Ion) battery that is at the core of its functionality.
In this guide, we introduce you to the brilliant, the bad, and the ugly of EVs and their Li-Ion batteries so that your business can take full advantage of this immensely disruptive technology.
Use the links below if you are looking for something specific.
- What is an electric car (EV)?
- What are Lithium-Ion (Li-Ion) batteries?
- What are EV batteries made of?
- Are there problems sourcing the materials?
- Who makes EV (Li-Ion) batteries?
- How long do EV batteries last?
- What are some of the issues surrounding EV batteries?
- What are the safety issues surrounding EV batteries?
- What are the environmental issues surrounding EV batteries?
- Are EV batteries recyclable?
- Where are Li-Ion batteries recycled?
- This is interesting, but why are you writing about EVs?
What is an electric car (EV)?
Let’s start with the basics: an electric car or electric vehicle (EV) is putting it simply a car that is powered by electricity from the energy grid, as opposed to gasoline or petrol.
EVs don’t come with the many complexities of combustion engines: fuel filters, valves, ignition systems or even a gearbox, making them eerily simple, quiet and resilient since there are fewer moving parts that can break.
Arguably, the reduction in road emissions from replacing petrol vehicles will save countless lives, with as many as 145 million EVs expected to be in circulation globally by 2030.
However, the world doesn’t seem to be ready to deal with the fallout as spent Li-Ion batteries that power the EVs require careful sorting and processing to be recycled appropriately, with the metals that compose it being naturally scarce and its components toxic if untreated.
What are Lithium-Ion (Li-Ion) batteries?
Contemporary EVs are powered by Lithium-ion (Li-Ion) rechargeable batteries, essentially scaled-up versions of those on mobile phones and laptops.
Li-Ion batteries work, allowing the movement of Lithium Ions between a positive and negative terminal to both store and utilise electrical energy.
Since Lithium is the lightest metal, it can be used to store energy in a lightweight structure compared to denser lead-acid batteries used in traditional petrol cars.
Li-Ion batteries were pioneered as early as the 1970s and saw much of their development since portable electronics like laptops, portable music players and mobile phones became all the rage in the 90s and 2000s.
What are EV batteries made of?
EV batteries can be optimally scaled to the size of the vehicle by connecting together the required number of small Li-Ion cells together.
The average EV battery can easily weigh half a ton and span the width of the chassis, providing up to 100kWh of energy.
The typical EV battery holds approximately 10kg of Lithium, with smaller yet vital quantities of other valuable metals such as cobalt, nickel, phosphorus, and manganese also needed, at least in current designs.
Where do Li-Ion raw materials come from?
Given the high level of funding and attention, EV battery technology is rapidly evolving, and designs and material requirements may vary largely in future.
More recently, development is increasingly sacrificing energy storage and power for improvements in fire safety, a recycling-friendlier design and reduced reliance on valuable metals like Lithium, Cobalt and Nickel.
The reason for the latter is that China has monopolised the EV battery supply chain, secured a steady stream of these raw materials and has built up the processing and recycling capacity to deal with it.
Who makes EV (Li-Ion) batteries?
China is currently the main producer of EV batteries. Last year, it utilised almost half of the Lithium mined globally to feed its Li-Ion battery mega factories.
Many of the batteries are sold to companies like Tesla, BMW and Volkswagen, but a large chunk is reserved for meeting the demand from local Chinese EV manufacturers like BYD and SAIC, who are global market leaders but have not yet made an appearance in the UK markets.
China is the largest market for EV batteries, surpassing both the EU and the USA, as China secures a vital role in this infrastructure of the future.
Battery producer CATL is the biggest in China and is believed to be manufacturing around one-third of the global EV batteries, a feat that requires long-term global supplies of materials and high-tech facilities.
How long do EV batteries last?
Like any battery, Li-Ion batteries gradually lose their capacity to retain and transfer electrical charge to deliver the power and range required by the vehicle.
The general estimate is that electric vehicles are currently losing around 2% of their range every year as the battery capacity decays.
Most manufacturers have a five to eight-year guarantee on their battery, but the general consensus is that current generation EV batteries have a life span of between 10 and 20 years, depending on their usage and what they’re needed for.
For example, if an EV is used to drive goods within a business property, it can probably extend its life span as it may still fulfil its functions with a much-reduced battery.
What are some of the issues surrounding EV batteries?
EV batteries have both direct and indirect safety and environmental issues when considering their entire life cycle, from the mining of its metal components to assemblage, usage and finally, recycling and disposal.
What are the safety issues surrounding EV batteries?
Many forms of Lithium used in the production of EVs are corrosive and harmful to humans, so a lot of care is required in all stages of its life cycle, including recycling.
The most immediate risk, however, has to do with the fire safety hazard posed by the low flash point of the liquid electrolyte contained within the batteries which may (and has!) self-combusted. Li-Ion self-combustion is one of the main reasons for global landfill fires.
What are the environmental issues surrounding EV batteries?
There are environmental issues throughout the life cycle of an EV battery.
When Lithium is concentrated to unnatural levels during mining and production it becomes a toxic pollutant that can cause havoc to the environment if it leaks into ecosystems or the water supply.
At the end of its life, if a battery is not recycled appropriately the Lithium electrolyte within could leak and contaminate the surrounding environment.
With little to no regulation currently in place to deal with the impending scale of batteries, this is currently a big concern, especially if used EVs are then sold on to poorer countries as it happens with petrol cars.
Are EV batteries recyclable?
The significant amounts of valuable metals like Lithium, Cobalt and Nickel make the batteries a potentially lucrative and strategic business.
Currently, the costs are still high as the industry is still in its infancy, and even the batteries are not designed with recycling-ease in mind (e.g. metals are welded together instead of assembled, making them hard to separate).
Recycling Li-Ion EV batteries are currently much more complex than recycling Lead-acid batteries. Such large batteries require a lot of storage space, technical expertise, and strict safety protocols to deal with fire hazards.
However, for countries with no Lithium reserves, recycling EV batteries could be a primary source of these metals for supplying their own battery-making industry (and not depend on China for this).
Where are Li-Ion batteries recycled?
Naturally, China is the leader in Li-Ion battery recycling facilities.
However, with the potential use cases of spent batteries still being explored and a potential second-hand EV market for poorer countries still in the cards, there is a chance the recycling infrastructure will decentralise.
Spent batteries may not be powerful enough to move a vehicle but may be given another life in energy storage for homes and businesses that rely on their own green energy or are off-grid.
What’s crucial is that EV batteries are large and contain toxic Lithium, making transportation tricky and expensive, highlighting the need for recycling facilities to be close to their end-of-life location.
As economies seek carbon neutrality by 2050, making recycling of Li-ion batteries unprofitable means they could end up costing the government (and therefore the taxpayer) or, even worst, end up in backwater landfills.
This is interesting, but why are you writing about EVs?
At AquaSwitch, we want to help you understand what is inevitably coming in the future energy markets, and how you can use it to your advantage.
How about providing an EV charging station on your business premises to attract forward-thinking talent or use it as part of company benefits; we hope to publish something on this soon.
In any case, switching business energy suppliers using our comparison tool is still the best way of taking advantage of the free market to save your business money during these expensive times.