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The Dirty Truth Behind Electric Vehicles

The procurement of raw materials and the difficulties in recycling batteries show that electric vehicles are not as green and sustainable as we're prone to believe.

Electric cars in Leipzig, Germany
Electric cars in Leipzig, Germany
Joachim Becker

MUNICH — Volkswagen wants to become the world's biggest environmentally-friendly automaker, with 100,000 electric vehicles a year from 2020 and one million from 2025. Where coal-fired power has left ugly patches, the eco-balance is to become spotlessly clean.

"When we say that we are delivering a carbon-neutral vehicle, this naturally includes battery cell production," says Thomas Ulbrich, member of the VW Board of Management and responsible for E-Mobility.

But what about battery materials? Ulbrich doesn't seem to have anything new to say about the disposal of batteries. The truth is that there is still no recycling system for the enormous quantities of batteries required for the shift to electric vehicles.

Burning through batteries

Until now, the life cycle of used batteries has been a broken chain. Half of all portable batteries on the market disappear without a trace. This is what the German environmental research institute Öko-Institut has shown in a new study for the EU Commission. Instead of being sorted and recycled, 35,000 tons of batteries ended up in household waste throughout Europe in 2015 alone. That's 16% of the 212,000 tons that were put on the market in 2015. Not to mention the many small batteries and small appliances that are disposed of in addition.

Even Germany failed to meet the EU prescribed collection quota of 45% for electronic waste in 2016. Starting in 2019, the EU will raise that quota to 65%.

The revenue from the sale of the recycled materials doesn't outweigh the costs of collection, dismantling and recycling.

A large part of e-waste will, however, continue to flow into dark channels. The German Academy of Engineering Sciences (Acatech) believes that 25 to 30% of the electronic waste generated in Europe will be exported illegally — including batteries. Nobody wants to know exactly what happens to hazardous waste in regions with low environmental standards. This will hardly change with electric vehicles exported to Africa or Eastern Europe at the end of their lives.

"Old lithium-ion batteries don't have any market value, unlike what many had expected," says Falk Petrikowski, battery expert at the German Environment Agency. "Recycling is expensive, partly because of the many components and the complex dismantling of the different traction batteries. The revenue from the sale of the recycled materials doesn't outweigh the costs of collection, dismantling and recycling."

Things look better with the old automotive batteries that are used to start the engines of traditional cars: Three-quarters of lead-acid batteries are made of metal, are easy to recycle and fetch a used price of around 500 euros per ton. The almost 100% recycling rate shows that the business is lucrative. However, lead-acid batteries are a phase-out model because they are too large and too heavy in relation to their capacity.

The growing popularity of electric bicycles is placing on the market large quantities of lithium-ion batteries, which are much heavier than in small appliances but don't last much longer on average. "Despite the increasing importance of lithium-ion batteries in new technologies such as e-bikes, there are no separate collection or recycling targets for them," says Hartmut Stahl, scientist at the Öko-Institut and main author of the study on the battery collection rate in Europe.

"That's where an improved directive must come in, with ambitious targets for key elements such as lithium and cobalt, for example," he says. "The current EU Batteries Directive classifies lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles as a type of industrial battery. But there's neither a collection nor a recycling quota for these batteries."

BMW, Northvolt and Umicore want to develop a "closed life-cycle loop for batteries." But even the Belgian raw materials and recycling giant Umicore doesn't yet have a blueprint for this. Many recyclers are missing out on valuable resources such as lithium and graphite. Since 2012, Volkswagen has been involved in the so-called "LithoRec" (recycling of lithium-ion batteries) project, which is scientifically supported by the University of Münster and the Braunschweig University of Technology. In Braunschweig, a small pilot plant for processing used batteries was also built in 2016.

In Seeheim, Germany — Photo: Silas Stein/DPA/ZUMA

The Öko-Institut says that this process strikes a good environmental balance: It is possible to recover not only metals such as cobalt, nickel and manganese, but also lithium, in a process whereby 100% of these materials can be reused in new batteries. But the process in not cost-effective yet. Until now, a "sustainable life cycle" has been too expensive because a lot of manual work and energy has to be used for recycling purposes.

In addition, the Öko-Institut calculates that an average of 300 kilometers have to be covered in order to transport the batteries from a decentralized garage to an industrial waste disposal company. And for safety reasons, the batteries must be transported in sand, otherwise incompletely discharged batteries can heat up and possibly catch fire. Last year in California, 65% of fires in waste facilities were caused by lithium-ion batteries.

Resource-driven recycling

How efficient recycling processes are depends on the automated dismantling and sorting processes. "The various methods used until now offer considerable potential for ecological and economic optimization through further technological development and the development of larger plants in the future," says Matthias Buchert, who heads the Resources and Transport Department at the Öko-Institut.

One problem is the absolute jumble you find when it comes to battery types. Each manufacturer treats its batteries as a trade secret and constantly changes the cell chemistry. Without precise construction plans and specifications, used batteries become a pile of waste instead of high-quality raw materials.

Apple wants to take the process into its own hands in order to be able to build its devices entirely from secondary raw materials in the long term. The computer manufacturer calculates that 100,000 iPhones contain 1900 kg of aluminum, 710 kg of copper, 770 kg of cobalt, and 11 kg of rare earth. Daisy, a specially developed recycling robot, knows the construction plans of nine iPhone versions. Instead of chasing the electronic scrap through the shredder into a blast furnace, it dismantles 200 smartphones per hour with surgical precision. The recycling robot is only available in Breda, Holland, and in Austin, Texas.

If a quarter of all new cars are to be powered by electricity by 2025, as the EU Commission demands, it means that some 20 million electric vehicles will be on Europe's roads. The German raw materials agency Dera is expecting an annual demand of 700 gigawatt-hours for battery power in 2026, almost two-thirds of which will be attributable to batteries for electric vehicles. That's the equivalent of 20 Giga factories like Tesla's battery factory in Nevada.

According to Dera, annual demand for cobalt will double to around 225,000 tons by then. So far, only 10% of the bluish ore comes from recycling. Nothing will change in the near future: Volkswagen guarantees a residual capacity of 80% for its lithium-ion batteries after eight years. After that, they can be used as stationary storage units for photovoltaic systems, for example. Only after 2025 will larger quantities be returned to the cycle.

The problem is that it will make recycling even less economical due to the shrinking proportion of the precious material.

For the time being, Europe and the rest of the world will depend on cobalt from the Congo. "Even the largest new projects currently being developed are all located in Congo, so much so that the concentration of supply will increase to over 70% by 2026," says Siyamend Al Barazi, Dera's cobalt expert. "But because the development of new production capacities isn't on the cards, there can be considerable supply problems," he adds.

The raw materials agency is already taking into account an altered metal mix for lithium-ion batteries. Thanks to new developments, the cobalt content, which ensures the long-term stability of the cathodes, can be halved. This is good news for raw material consumption and security of supply. The problem is that it will make recycling even less economical due to the shrinking proportion of the precious material.

Cobalt from the Congo shows the dirty side of the energy revolution. Child labor and the financing of armed conflicts repeatedly lead to scandals surrounding the procurement of raw materials. Dera says that cobalt has the highest procurement risks of all battery materials.

A study by the Helmholtz-Institute Ulm for Electrochemical Energy Storage says that the demand for cobalt for batteries will be twice as high as today's identified reserves by 2050. By then at the latest, recycling will become a matter of life and death for individual mobility.

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