Recycling Batteries: A Major Challenge

The electric vehicle (EV) holds many virtues but also several challenges.

The battery is arguably the most complex and currently the most contentious aspect.

Among the criticisms leveled against it, some notable ones include:

  • A considerable carbon footprint in manufacturing, achieving net zero CO2 emissions only after extensive mileage.
  • The need for metals currently underexploited, necessitating new mines with associated economic, social, and environmental considerations.
  • China’s dominance in technology, posing a significant sovereignty challenge.
  • A considerable price that concentrates much of the EV’s new value, making it expensive.
  • A risk of battery aging, especially for second-hand sales.
  • Variable repairability based on vehicle architecture choices.

All battery stakeholders are working on these issues simultaneously. A crucial topic is the repairability and maintenance of batteries to avoid discarding or destroying a set of cells due to a few failures. Two conditions are necessary for this:

  • The battery must be effectively removable and repairable, which unfortunately is not the trend with some stakeholders (notably Tesla). It is essential for automotive manufacturers to prioritize repairability in their designs.
  • A network of specialists must develop to maintain and repair batteries as close to customers as possible and to their maximum capacity.

However, there will come a time when the battery is no longer repairable, necessitating recycling, involving all stakeholders.

Recycling the battery at the end of its life effectively means:

  • Significantly reducing the carbon footprint of the new battery resulting from recycling.
  • Avoiding the sourcing of rare materials abroad at high costs.
  • Being able to produce batteries locally without relying on China.
  • Preserving value and recovering a significant portion of it.
  • Ensuring a new battery with nominal performance.

Recycling is therefore crucial to limit the economic, environmental, and social impact of EVs. Is it feasible?

Many stakeholders (Veolia, Suez, Eramet, CATL, etc.) have confirmed that an EV battery is recyclable at over 95%. Once the casing is removed, electronics and cables are taken out, and all cells can be crushed into what is known as “black mass,” which can be recycled, with a metal recovery rate close to 100%, and these metals are infinitely recyclable.

Moreover, Europe has recently enacted Regulation 2023/1542, which will mandate battery recycling with several measures:

  • The obligation to recycle metals (Lithium at 50% by 2027, 80% by 2031; Cobalt, Copper, and Nickel at 90% by 2027 and 95% by 2031).
  • The obligation to include an increasing proportion of recycled metals in new batteries (Cobalt 16% by 2031 and 26% by 2036, Lithium 6% by 2031 and 12% by 2036, Nickel 6% by 2031 and 15% by 2036).
  • The obligation, starting in 2026, to attach a digital passport to each battery.

Finally, according to the IEA, the volume of batteries to be recycled is expected to increase significantly, with estimates of around 1 million tons in 2030, 2.2 Mt in 2035, and 6.5 Mt in 2040.

These figures illustrate the considerable stakes at hand but also the fundamental actions underway to address a highly strategic issue that combines sovereignty, industrial employment, and the environment.