Electric vehicles (EVs) are a crucial piece in efforts to combat global warming and stave off the potentially catastrophic impacts of climate change. But while EVs can help address a big source of emissions — vehicular pollution — they hide in their heart an issue of great concern for the green future: that of spent batteries. The lithium ion batteries that power EVs, however, also present an opportunity for recycling and reuse for India as it seeks to step up on its drive for clean mobility.
How Long Do EV Batteries Last?
Most EVs run on the same batteries that now power your everyday electronics like mobile phones and tablets — the lithium ion cell. For a four-wheeler, these batteries typically need to be charged every 200-250 kilometres.
EVs are said to demand very high performance from their batteries, which therefore need to be replaced once their capacity declines to 70-80 per cent of peak output, which usually would be about after 8-10 years after the EV hits the road. The durability would, of course, depend on how much, and how frequently, the battery has been recharged.
Experts say that while almost all traditional lead-acid batteries are recycled, the market for the recycling of lithium-ion batteries is as yet in its nascent stage, the slow growth linked to the speed of uptake of EVs. Further, EV batteries are more complicated to handle, given that they are larger and heavier than those used in fossil fuel-based cars. Made up of hundreds of individual lithium-ion cells, each has to be dismantled separately and carefully, too, since they contain hazardous materials that can explode if improperly taken apart.
As an article in Wired says, “while you can re-use most parts in EVs, the batteries aren’t designed to be recycled or reused".
How Are Used EV Batteries Disposed Of?
There are three options: they can be put away in landfills, dismantled for the extraction of valuable materials, or reused. Of these, the first option is perhaps the least desirable since most of the material used in these batteries can leach out, contaminating soil and groundwater and posing risks to ecosystems and health.
The end of the road for an EV battery does not mean that it is entirely useless. A discarded battery, experts point out, can still withstand a lot of “charging and discharging, making it useful for storage in less intensive stationary applications". Which is why reuse, or second-life applications, for such batteries is being explored by many companies although a report points to the “many technical, economic, and regulatory challenges… that prevent companies from putting in place an economically viable business model for second-life batteries".
The environmentally, and economically, sound option would of course be to recycle EV batteries, but that is where there is, at least at present, a mismatch between intention and implementation. Experts widely believe that no more than a mere 5 per cent of lithium ion batteries are currently getting recycled. One factor that explains the paucity of recycling options is the high investments needed for setting up a recycling plant or increasing the capacity of an existing plant.
How Big Will EV Recycling Industry Be?
It may seem that it is still early days to be talking about end-of-life EV batteries, given that the number of electric passenger cars in use globally increased from close to zero to 10.2 million only between 2010 and 2020. However, by the end of this decade, an estimate by the International Energy Agency (IEA) suggests, there would be about a quarter billion EVs on the roads.
More EVs would mean more lithium-ion batteries and that in turn would mean a greater need for recycling. According to French market research firm Yole Developpement, there will be about 705,000 tonnes of end-of-life lithium ion batteries by 2025 with the figure set to go up to 9 million tonnes per year by 2040. Yole notes that at present “only a small portion of Li-ion batteries are recycled, and the rest are unfortunately going to landfill". It says that the EV battery recycling market was about 93,800 tonnes in 2019, but will
grow to more than 450,000 tonnes by 2025.
The total value of raw materials present in end-of-life lithium ion batteries now is around USD 921 million, says Yole, noting that the fugure would reach up to USD 1.9 billion by 2025 and over USD 25 billion by 2040. Yole further says that the value of raw materials present in these batteries, which stands at around USD 315 million today, will reach USD 23 billion by 2040.
Why Does It Make Sense To Recycle EV Batteries?
The most important ingredients that go into the making of lithium ion batteries are hard to come by and, therefore, expensive. Also, as the World Economic Forum (WEF) points out, their mining “raises ethical and environmental concerns". Thus, recycling of end-of-life batteries offers a chance to recover these valuable materials.
Reports note that while more than half of all of the world’s lithium reserves are in Chile, more than a third of all rare earth mineral reserves are in China while cobalt, another crucial component in lithium ion batteries mostly all comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has the largest reserves of the mineral in the world, approximately 3.6 million metric tonnes of it.
Strategists and industry watchers already speak about potential problems in the raw material supply chain and geopolitical concentration of these components, making a strong pitch for recycling in order to ensure that there is a steady supply of the batteries for powering the future of mobility.
How Can India Benefit Through Recycling?
The Centre had last year approved a Rs 18,000-crore performance-linked incentive (PLI) scheme for the production of EV batteries in India at a time when experts pointed out that India was meeting its entire demand for such advanced chemistry cell, or ACC, batteries through imports.
While the PLI for manufacturing of EV batteries was hailed by industry players, it was noted that India would still need to import most of the raw materials needed to produce lithium ion batteries. Reports say that Indian EV makers have to import cells and batteries from China, the world’s top producer.
In that respect, recycling is the best way forward for India to address two pressing issues: the availability of raw materials for lithium ion batteries and the disposal of end-of-life batteries. The Centre is aiming for EVs to make up 30 per cent of all vehicular sales by 2030. In 2020, total car sales in India stood at 2.43 million units. Even if sales stay at the same level, there would still be more than 7 lakh EVs that would be sold in India by the end of this decade. At present, there are about 2.5 lakh EVs on the road in India that use lithium-ion batteries, says data from the Society of Manufacturers of Electric Vehicles (SMEV), with two-wheelers making up about 80 per cent of the fleet.
With the country set to be the third-largest auto market in the world and EVs set to drive vehicle sales going forward, batteries will be a key area of focus for the domestic industry. To that extent, recycling of batteries holds big potential for the country, experts say. “With the right incentives and policy framework, India can leapfrog some EV battery recycling barriers and become a major player within the next decade," says a report by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD).
China has set the pace on EV battery recycling and the Yole report notes that Chinese recycling companies “benefit from an already large battery market, enjoy extensive support from the state and have good access to the high volume of material to be recycled", given that the country is also home to the largest fleet of EVs in the world.
As the IISD report notes: “Like China, India has a major EV growth market and would thus be able to count on a reliable supply of end-of-life batteries in the future. Unlike China, India does not have global supply chains for primary materials such as lithium and cobalt, and so urban mining and recycling are also needed for India to become a large-scale EV battery manufacturer."
What Would It Take To Establish India As A Recycling Hub?
The IISD report points out that since the initial bits of the recycling chain are labour intensive, India holds an advantage over other major players due to its large population and lower labour costs, although the need for automating the recycling process is stressed on due to the hazards involved in handling end-of-life batteries.
Noting that it took China a decade of regulatory development to become the market leader in recycling, the IISD report says India, too, would need to improve regulations, including for battery collection, transportation and storage. Government policies should serve to foster the creation of a viable business model for recyclers, reports add.
India’s Batteries (Management and Handling) Rules, 2001, do not cover lithium ion batteries and are limited only to lead acid batteries. But recycling of lithium ion and nickel cadmium batteries, among others, has been dealt with in the draft Battery Waste Management Rules circulated by the Union Environment Ministry last year.
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