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Recycled batteries open up for industrial growth

Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles are often shipped to other countries for recycling. This is a massive waste of resources, since they could be reused in other applications. 
– “Sweden needs to adopt a holistic approach to batteries and close the value chain,” says Kalle Pelin, Head of the Resources from Waste unit at RISE. 

The number of electric vehicles on our roads is increasing rapidly every year. It is predicted that half of all vehicles will be electric or plug-in hybrids by 2030. When it comes to electric vehicles, discussions frequently revolve around how the country’s charging infrastructure needs to be developed – but the disposal of electric vehicle batteries is not addressed to the same extent.

Like much else regarding batteries, China and other countries in Asia have made greater progress than Sweden and Europe in terms of recycling. A report by the Swedish Energy Agency indicates that electronics recycling companies largely sell lithium-ion batteries to China and South Korea where they are recycled or reused in other applications. Of the 97,000 tonnes recycled in 2018, China accounted for 67,000 tonnes and South Korea for 18,000 tonnes. The report also shows that there are major economic and environmental benefits to be gained by increasing battery recycling in Europe. 

“A healthy battery economy would produce enormous gains in terms of freedom from fossil fuel and national independence, since we have different forms of solar, wind and hydropower,” says Kalle Pelin, Head of the Resources from Waste unit at RISE. “At the same time, it would boost industrial growth in Sweden and Europe.” 

If we can extend the service life of a battery and give it a second life, we could achieve huge gains

Major battery initiative

At present, RISE is involved in a major initiative to build infrastructure and knowledge about batteries with the aim of strengthening Sweden’s position in the field. The issue of battery recycling is extremely important; batteries must be used with a life cycle perspective and must not be immediately sent off for recycling. 

– “If we can extend the service life of a battery and give it a second life, we could achieve huge gains,” says Pelin. “It would allow us to make good use of the resources.”

Batteries for storing energy in buildings

One way to extend the life of batteries from electric vehicles is to use them for energy storage in properties. A combination of solar cells and batteries would allow many households to become wholly or partly self-sufficient in electrical energy for much of the year. Battery storage could be used to even out the burden on the grid during the day, especially during the morning and evening peaks. They could then charge when the load is not as high.

An example of successful battery reuse can be found at the housing association Viva in Gothenburg. Viva uses batteries from electric buses to store energy generated by solar panels on the buildings’ roofs. The power output is then distributed for charging electric vehicles, for example, and for the association’s electricity usage in general. The life cycle of the batteries can be summarised as production, use in buses, use in houses and recycling.

However, there are also challenges presented by the regulatory framework pertaining to the use of second life electric vehicle batteries for energy storage in properties.

– “There are completely different rules for batteries used in electric vehicles and those used in properties,” says Lars Fast, researcher in batteries, fuel cells and electrolysis at RISE. “This requires approval from the Swedish National Electrical Safety Board. At the same time, it can be difficult to say how much power you can get from a recycled battery. There are many factors that come into play, including the type of battery and how it was used, how much power was obtained from the battery and how quickly.”

It is incredibly important that we conserve Earth’s resources

A recycling infrastructure is needed

Another challenge concerns the reuse of electric vehicle batteries, since Sweden does not presently have established infrastructure for managing batteries that can be reused in new applications. Battery recycling in Sweden primarily involves the permanent disposal of batteries, and this also presents challenges.

– “In Sweden today, there are few options for recovering lithium or cobalt, for example, from old batteries,” says Fast. “It is also energy-intensive and therefore expensive to extract clean metals from old batteries, and this means that what we are able to recover is of poorer quality. It’s somewhat of a recycling spiral that we will hopefully be able to level out down the line.”

Managing innovation-critical materials

It is also extremely important to act sparingly with what are often referred to as innovation-critical materials, i.e. critical metals and minerals for climate transition. 

– “In Europe, we mine about 3 percent of our consumption of these materials, but we use 25 percent of what is available globally,” says Pelin. “It is incredibly important that we conserve Earth’s resources and that we can safeguard our needs.” 

At the same time, it is important to view the battery issue in relation to other technologies and energy types needed for climate transition. 

– “It’s easy to sub-optimise,” says Pelin. “There are many special interests, such as the electric vehicle industry perhaps having more space than is reasonable, for example. There is no universal solution, so it’s important to adopt a holistic approach.” 

Published: 2021-07-08
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