Recycled batteries reduce dependence on imported raw materials
The transport sector urgently needs to be decarbonised and batteries are the key technology underpinning the transition of road vehicles to zero emissions. In March, Transport and Environment (T&E) published a report analysing Europe’s forecasted supply and demand of battery cells and associated raw materials. T&E’s report illustrates that, contrary to the view that electric vehicles (EV) will lead to the plundering of raw materials, once recycling is taken into account the amount of raw material that is used and cannot be recovered is small.
Enough batteries made in the EU for the EV market
With battery electric vehicles (BEV) projected to replace conventional cars in Europe, the demand for battery cells is set to grow in the coming years. In total, the demand for batteries in Europe is projected to reach close to 300 GWh in 2025 and more than 1,300 GWh in 2035.
Today, China has about 80% of global lithium-ion cell production, but Europe’s capacity is set to expand fast. Until 2020, there was a shortfall of batteries produced in Europe to supply all the EVs on the market, but supply could meet demand in 2021 at around 90 GWh if planned production is on schedule. There are 22 battery gigafactories planned over the next decade in the EU, with total production capacity rising from 460 GWh in 2025 to 730 GWh in 2030, a number sufficient to meet the expected EV market. If production is ramped up on schedule, battery supply could even surpass European demand by the mid-2020s.
As European production increases, so will the demand for raw materials such as lithium, nickel and cobalt. But as battery technology evolves, less raw material will be needed to produce each kWh of EV battery. From 2020 to 2030 the quantities of materials needed to produce a kWh of battery capacity are expected to fall by a half for lithium, more than three-quarters for cobalt and by around a fifth for nickel.
Reducing primary demand through recycling
In contrast with the fossil fuels used in internal combustion cars, EV batteries can be part of a circular economy loop. Recycling of battery materials is essential to reduce the pressure on demand for virgin materials, and to limit the negative environmental and societal impacts that extraction can generate. If recovery rates in the draft EU battery regulation are increased to best practice, the amount of material in each battery that cannot be recycled to make new batteries can be reduced by a factor of 3 for lithium, and a factor of 2.5 for cobalt, nickel and copper.
“The recovery of critical raw materials from this e-waste stands below 1% because we do not have the necessary technology and industrial processes in place,” says Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič. “If you just collect all the old cell phones we have in our drawers, we can immediately build four million car batteries just from the cobalt,” the Commissioner added, highlighting the vast untapped potential of so-called “urban mining”.¹
If EV battery recycling is also taken into account, the need for raw materials is further decreased under the Commission’s proposed targets. According to these targets, 5% of lithium, 17% of cobalt and 4% of nickel required for EV battery production should be obtained from recycled European EV batteries by 2030. In 2035, this increases to 22% of lithium and nickel and 65% of cobalt, as more cars come to the end of their lifespan. Recycling of EVs starts to have a strong impact from 2030. If current European reserves of raw materials were converted into BEV batteries in 2030, this would account for the equivalent of; the lithium for 200 million BEVs, or 20 million with no recycling, the nickel for 17 billion BEVs, or 0,3 billion with no recycling and the cobalt for 500 million BEVs, or 10 million with no recycling.
Rita Tedesco from ECOS, a network of environmental NGOs, highlights that green standards for batteries are vital to ensure the transition to electro- mobility is done in a really eco-friendly way and stated that “We need performant and durable EV batteries, which are easy to repair,reuse and recycle,”.
Tedesco adds that “Parameters such as the state of health of the batteries and tests to evaluate them need to be comparable throughout different brands. A minimum set of design standards – such as lifting parts – would make the disassembly process for recycling cheaper, simpler and less time-consuming”.²
Comparison with internal combustion engines
During its lifetime, the internal combustion engine (ICE) car burns about 17,000 litres of petrol or 13,500 litres of diesel. The metals used in battery cells weigh around 160 kg. If the battery was recycled and the majority of the metal recovered, around 30 kilograms of metals would be lost. The weight of fuel that is burned during the average lifetime of an ICE car is around 300–400 times more than the total quantity of battery cell metals that are not recovered.When it comes to energy efficiency the BEV will require 58% less energy than a petrol car over its lifetime. With regards to CO₂ lifecycle emissions, the average European BEV emits 64% less CO₂ than a conventional ICE.
Recommendations for phasing out ICE
An EU-wide phase-out date for the sale of ICE cars is needed to accelerate the transition to BEVs. A study by the Ecologic Institute in Germany for Greenpeace makes the assessment that to limit global warming to 1.5°C, ICE cars need to be phased out in Europe by 2025 and hybrid vehicles by 2028³. In addition, all fossil fuel subsidies, oil exploration and extraction in EU countries should be ended. Policies to use cars more efficiently through shared mobility and less private car use in urban areas, will reduce raw materials demand.
Whilst the new EU battery proposal takes an important step towards ensuring that EV batteries meet environmental and social standards, more can be done. Responsible supply chains should be made mandatory, due diligence requirements should be extended to copper, and small-scale mining must be addressed through EU development policies. The proposed battery material recovery targets should be increased to 90% for lithium and 98% for cobalt, nickel and copper.
In summary, there is no comparison between oil and battery materials as battery electric vehicles and their bill of materials are already substantially more beneficial from an environmental, economic, social and resource efficiency point of view.
Lucien Mathieu, transport and e-mobility analyst at T&E concluded that “Recycling of battery materials is crucial to reduce the pressure on primary demand for virgin materials and ultimately limit the impacts raw material extraction can have on the environment and on communities.” Mathieu also added that “With batteries, the EU has the unique opportunity to move away from dependence on raw material imports like it has been for decades with fossil fuels.”
Based on Transport & Environment (2021), From dirty oil to clean batteries.
1. Frédéric Simon Raw materials: the missing link in Europe’s drive for batteries https://www.euractiv.com/section/energy-environment/news/raw-materials-the-missing-link-in-europes-drive-for-batteries/
3. Read more in Combustion-engine cars need to be phased out in Europe by 2025
4. p24-25 in Acid News Nr 4 December 2020 https://www.airclim.org/acidnews/no-4-december-2020