As New Zealand, and the world, grow their electric vehicle fleets, there’s also a push on to find effective and sustainable ways to manage the lithium-ion batteries.
In New Zealand, fewer than 200 EV or hybrids have officially been recorded as ‘scrapped’. But these numbers will grow as the fleet ages and grows.
The 2020 Vector-sponsored New Energy Futures paper suggests that, if we follow international trends, this year around 1,000 EV batteries will reach the end of their life. By 2030 it is likely to be 30,000 or more. Many vehicle batteries will find a second life as house solar storage units, electricity substation back-up, or in a range of other uses. But eventually, they too will run out of juice and need dismantling and recycling.
The research suggests that in the short term, most batteries with no further use will be dismantled and sent offshore for recycling. However, there is at least one New Zealand company that is tooling up to do this work here.
The Battery Industry Group has developed a draft product stewardship framework for the sustainable disposal of end-of-life large lithium-ion batteries. It will be presented to the Ministry of Environment this month (April) and, when approved, is likely to be in place within a few years. Once in place, there would be a disposal fee attached to all imported EV batteries, which would be used to help fund end-of-life processing and materials recovery.
The Vector research paper notes that some of the global issues in reuse and recycling will depend upon the responsibility taken by manufacturers. Will they continue to support batteries that have been repurposed for a second life? Will they want to ensure their batteries are returned for their own recycling initiatives? Will manufacturers make their battery packs in a way that more easily allows them to be reused, or disassembled for recycling by third parties? Work is underway at an international level to find answers that will be sustainable and beneficial to all.
The main components of lithium-ion batteries (lithium, cobalt and graphite) all have sustainability issues. Lithium mining in some countries has resulted in toxic spills and water shortages. Much of the world’s cobalt comes from Democratic Republic of Congo and is mined using child labour and unregulated, dangerous practices. Graphite, (which makes up the bulk of a battery, about 50kg), is mainly sourced from China where there are concerns over environmental and labour practices.
Cobalt and nickel are the money makers in recycling (it costs more currently to recycle lithium than it does to extract it raw from the earth). Newly developed technology can recover 80 percent of all the resources, but most processing plants are extracting between 20 and 40 percent of the raw materials. Meanwhile, demand for the minerals is growing as production ramps up, prices are rising, and recycling is becoming more urgent and necessary. Battery manufacturers, concerned about the ethical and environmental harm of mining, are also trying to find synthetic or other alternatives. Tesla has already announced its next generation of batteries will not use cobalt.
New Zealand is at the forefront of research: the Auckland Dynatis Aotearoa/University of Auckland Light Metals Research Centre is investigating the use of sodium and aluminium, while Victoria University is attempting to develop commercially viable alumunium ion batteries.
There is extra mileage to be gained from refurbishing the cells within batteries. It’s something MTA member Blue Cars in Auckland has been working on with Nissan Leaf batteries for a couple of years. Director Bill Alexander says their test car is 18 months into its trial, with 20,000km on the clock so far. Two other projects have been completed and the plan is to start by refurbishing half a dozen Leaf batteries a year and grow as demand grows.
Bill says, “When we remove the Nissan modules in the battery, we replace them with imported modules from China which have 50 percent more capacity.” The old modules, which can still run at about 50 percent of their original state of health, can be repurposed for storage.
He says there’s a huge demand for EV batteries for a second life as storage units, but few batteries come onto the market. “We intend to partner with someone who can use the old batteries once we have a flow on going through the business.”
Toyota and Upcycle
At the moment, there are no large-scale pre-processing, processing or full recycling facilities for large NiMH (nickel metal hydride) or lithium-ion batteries in New Zealand. However, Upcycle Ltd in Auckland has partnered with Toyota NZ to take in its returned hybrid batteries. The collection takes place through Toyota stores, and includes a $100 bounty for batteries returned from vehicle dismantlers.
Upcycle Director Alex Hong says his team dismantles the batteries, strips out the plastic and metals, then packages up the cells for safe shipping overseas for material recovery and reuse. Upcycle’s shipments are mainly made up of lead acid batteries and e-waste.
He says, as far as he knows, Upcycle is the only business exporting EV batteries for recycling. “So far, we have sent only a few large batteries offshore.”
Those in the industry say some car manufacturers are accepting back New Zealand-new batteries for reuse or recycling – however, the logistics can be time consuming. The task requires an EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) hazardous material export permit, a willing shipper, and the paperwork showing compliance with the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal.
The Vector New Energy Futures report suggests there is some small-scale stockpiling of these batteries in New Zealand.
Recycling in New Zealand
Wellington-based ITRecycla has invested heavily in an automated processing system capable of shredding and separating a wide range of e-waste, including all types of batteries - from AAA to EV. Director John Evans expects it to be fully operational later this year. “Most of the equipment has already arrived; the last container should be here in a month or so.” In the meantime, ITRecycla has a secure concrete bunker where it is storing large and small lithium-ion batteries.
“Recycling hybrid and EV batteries is a whole big learning exercise, but it is important we are able to do the recycling in New Zealand. There are very real concerns about the danger of shipping lithium-ion batteries because they can ignite – and if you have a whole container load of them, the ship’s fire systems would not be able to cope.”