“Almost all of the [electric car] batteries we’ve ever made are still in cars,” said Nissan executive Nic Thomas.
“And we’ve been selling electric cars for 12 years,” he added.
The worry was once what the world would do with millions of spent electric vehicle (EV) batteries after they no longer powered the cars and vans they propelled. But this glut of EV batteries has not yet materialized—Nissan has been making the electric Leaf since 2010—and automotive industry initiatives to recycle the lithium-ion cells bundled in EV batteries are slow to go mainstream in Europe and the US
Electric cars have sophisticated battery management systems that guard the long-term health of their batteries. Most manufacturers offer battery warranties of seven or eight years or around 100,000 miles of driving, but there’s an industry expectation that EV batteries will last longer than that; they should outlive the cars themselves.
EV batteries consist of more than 2,000 individual lithium-ion cells working together. Battery management systems, or BMS, allow the cells to be gently topped up, preserving efficiency and life; EV lithium-ion batteries live much longer than lithium-ion phone or laptop batteries which sport less sophisticated BMS.
“We haven’t got a great big stock of batteries that we can convert into something else,” stressed Thomas, who is the UK marketing director for nissan and who recently moved back to his home country after working in Japan, where he led Nissan’s global EV business.
“It’s the complete opposite of what people feared when we first launched EVs—that the batteries would only last a short time,” he reflected.
It’s clear that most EV batteries will outlast the vehicles they were installed in, and even then, they have a worthwhile second life before they need to be stripped down for recycling.
“At the end of the vehicle’s life—15 or 20 years down the road—you take the battery out of the car, and it’s still healthy, with perhaps 60 or 70% of usable charge,” said Thomas.
“Taking the battery out [of an electric car] and putting a new battery in is not a viable proposition. It’s more sustainable to take the battery pack out of the car after 20 years, recycle the car, and reuse the battery.”
Nissan has collected only a relatively small number of Leaf batteries—from crashed vehicles or after warranty issues—and supplied some to provide backup power to the Johan Cruijff Arena in Amsterdam, home to Ajax Football Club. The arena’s roof has 4,200 solar panels, with the resulting electricity stored in the equivalent of 148 Nissan Leaf batteries.
Other Leaf batteries will be dismantled and reused in consumer-level portable energy storage packs “when we’ve got some batteries to go into them,” said Thomas.
“But by far the easiest thing to do take the complete battery out of the vehicle, put it in a shipping container in a rack and plug that into a solar farm.”
Such reuse is now commonplace in Japan, and it’s ramping up in the UK Thomas said that Nissan’s new billion-dollar gigawatt factory rising from the ground at its Sunderland plant will use EV batteries to store energy from solar panels and three wind turbines.
“The building will use a mixture of new and used batteries, and we’ll keep adding used batteries as they come available,” he said, stressing that Nissan doesn’t own the batteries in its customers’ cars.
“[The batteries] don’t belong to us; we need to support our customers by finding the right things to do with them.”
Thomas was speaking at the Stockholm launch of the Japan-built Ariya electric crossover. More premium than a Leaf, the Ariya was road tested by journalists on sinuous Swedish roads.
And if Leaf batteries are few and far between, it will be many years before semi-spent Ariya batteries are added to the company’s stockpile for reuse or recycling.
EV batteries consist of those two thousand or more cells bundled in modules and wired into battery packs sandwiched in a protective metal casing. These electrochemical power packs can weigh a thousand pounds or more.
Lithium-ion batteries are expensive to manufacture, partly due to the high cost of cobalt, mainly mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Cobalt extraction is the largest source of DRC’s export income, and the country accounted for more than two-thirds of global cobalt production in 2021.
While some carmakers have started building cobalt-free batteries—many Tesla batteries now rely instead on lithium phosphate—the demand for the hard, lustrous gray material is only likely to increase. The same is true for lithium, nickel, and other materials inside these batteries, which are mined in Russia, Indonesia, and other places where environmental oversight is often poor, labor standards are often lax, and where mining companies have been known to fuel conflicts with local communities. (You’ve heard of “blood diamonds”? There’s also “blood cobalt.”)
Reclaiming cobalt and more through recycling makes ethical and environmental sense, but the financial case is often poor. The retrieved raw material—reclaimed through a hydro-metallurgical process that produces salts or metallic hydroxides which can be used as precursors—doesn’t always even pay for the labor involved, which includes collection, transport, battery chemistry sorting, shredding, separation of metallic and non-metallic materials, neutralizing hazardous substances, smelting, and then purification.
It’s impossible to compile accurate figures for what percentage of lithium-ion batteries are currently recycled, but the value usually quoted is about 5%.
The sector might be small, but it has vast potential for growth.
“There is already a very strong recycling industry for batteries in China,” said Thomas.
“I’ve visited lots of plants in some fairly far-flung parts of China where they grind the battery down to what they call black mass, which then enables them to extract all of the precious metals, starting with the lithium, but then moving on to the nickel and the cobalt.”
In Salzgitter, Germany, Volkswagen recently opened an electric car battery research and production facility. This new SalzGiga facility will recycle EV batteries.
Recycling is also set to grow in the US Redwood Materials, a battery recycler created by Tesla cofounder and former tech chief JB Straubel, recently raised more than $700 million from investors to expand its Carson City, Nevada, operations and build an additional processing facility on a 100-acre site it owns.
Redwood can already recapture usable quantities of metals at a cost lower than conventional mining, Straubel recently told Forbes.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that the world currently has enough capacity to recycle 180,000 metric tons of spent EV batteries annually. This is nowhere near enough: recycling experts estimate that the EVs bought in 2019 alone will eventually generate 500,000 metric tons of battery waste. By 2040, there could be 1,300-gigawatt hours’ worth of spent batteries in need of recycling, warns the IEA.
Given the often poor economic case for recycling, it’s clear there is a need to be national and international policies to mandate EV battery recycling. Academics from the Faraday Institution’s Reuse and Recycling of Lithium Ion Batteries (ReLib) project at the University of Birmingham in the UK are working to identify the policies and regulations that would create the economic conditions required to optimize the reuse and recycling of EV batteries. These policies include standards around battery design that would allow recyclers to take them apart more easily, battery take-back programs, and strict laws against landfilling with EV batteries.
The European Union already regulates EV battery disposal under an “extended producer responsibility” scheme and is set to update its regulations to set specific targets for minerals recovery.
Meanwhile, automotive companies are working hard on improving battery efficiencies. Nissan is hoping to equip its cars with “all-solid-state batteries (ASSB)” by 2028 and could open a plant next year in Japan making the new technology. Solid-state batteries promise to charge faster, hold more power, and could last longer than lithium-ion batteries.
In time, however, they too will need to be repurposed and then recycled.
“I’ll be very old and very retired by the time we actually need to do a lot of these things,” joked Thomas but, given the worldwide uptake of EVs is set to accelerate, reuse and recycling of EV batteries will soon become the norm