UK 'must recycle electric car batteries or face waste crisis'

Recycling technologies for old lithium-ion batteries have failed to keep pace with innovation

Wednesday, 6th November 2019, 6:00 pm
Updated Wednesday, 6th November 2019, 11:22 pm
Demand for electric cars could lead to a future waste crisis, experts have warned (Photo: Getty)

The UK must develop more effective ways of recycling the lithium-ion batteries which power electric cars or risk a future waste crisis, a new report has cautioned.

Researchers from the University of Birmingham, Newcastle and Leicester are calling for both government and electric vehicle (EV) manufacturers to develop robust battery recycling facilities to meet future demand for the cars, something the country is currently "relatively underprepared" for.

Electric car ownership grew by 76.6 per cent during 2018 compared to the previous year, equating to a record 195,000 vehicles on Britain's roads, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT).

Based on the 1m electric cars sold in 2017, researchers have calculated that 250,000 tonnes or half a million cubic metres of unprocessed pack waste will be generated when these vehicles reach the end of their lives.

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Electric car charging points

An electric car and a plug-in hybrid car charge at a public charging station in Berlin (Photo: Getty)

EV batteries are generally tested to last between 10 and 20 years, according to EDF Energy.

Removing and recycling lithium-ion batteries is a time-consuming, expensive and potentially dangerous process for human factory staff, as the batteries contain hazardous chemicals.

Recycling rates for lithium-ion batteries is around 5 per cent across the European Union, according to Friends of the Earth, and a lack of any lithium-ion recycling facilities in the UK means batteries have to be exported to mainland Europe they can be processed.

Engineers and policy-makers need to identify other uses for batteries which have come to the end of their lives and develop rapid repair and recycling methods, particularly as storing electric batteries on a large scale can be unsafe, the report's authors said.

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Battery design should be optimised for automated disassembly, making the recycling process safer than the current manual handling techniques, and new techniques should be developed to ensure components do not become contaminated during recycling.

Future of recycling

The Faraday Institution, the UK's independent institute for electrochemical energy storage research, has claimed the UK needs eight gigafactories (lithium-ion battery factories) by 2040 to meet demands for the batteries.

"Electrification of just 2 per cent of the current global car fleet would represent a line of cars that could stretch around the circumference of the Earth - some 140 million vehicles," said Professor Andrew Abbott, from the University of Leicester and co-author of the report, published in journal Nature.

"Landfill is clearly not an option for this amount of waste. Finding ways to recycle EV batteries will not only avoid a huge burden on landfill, it will also help us secure the supply of critical materials, such as cobalt and lithium, that surely hold the key to a sustainable automotive industry."