As consumers begin thinking about buying their first electric vehicle (EV), they have a lot of questions. How far will it go on a single charge? How long will I have to wait for it to charge up? How many years will the battery last? These are all natural questions to ask because this technology is significantly different from the internal combustion engine.
We must also think about the cost to properly dispose of the battery when it can’t be used anymore. Most consumers are so focused on the earlier questions that they are not thinking about the end-of-life costs.
Let’s imagine a hypothetical EV battery weighing 1,000 lbs. This unit could have the following profile:
- 150 lbs. of steel from the battery housing and hardware
- 40 lbs. of aluminum plates that are used for heat transfer
- 10 lbs. of copper for electrical connections
- 30 lbs. of electronic scrap
- 70 lbs. of plastic
- 650 lbs. of Li-ion pouch-style cells
Newer EV batteries have cells with cathodes consisting of nickel, cobalt, manganese, and aluminum. In a typical cathode, we can expect the metal composition to be roughly 89% Ni, 5% Co, 5% Mn, and 1% Al. Using this information, and some other unstated assumptions, the 650 lbs. of cells in our hypothetical battery may contain:
- 82 lbs. of nickel
- 5 lbs. of cobalt
- 4 lbs. of manganese
- 30 lbs. of lithium
- 34 lbs. of aluminum
- 68 lbs. of copper
- 13 lbs. of plastic
- 137 lbs. of carbon/graphite
Based on recent commodity market prices, the above materials have an aggregate value of about $2,000.
But what if a different cathode material is used? In the future, most EVs might use lithium iron phosphate (LFP) cathodes instead of nickel-containing cathodes, primarily because LFP batteries have lower up-front costs. In this case, the aggregate value is only about $800.
In both scenarios we can see there is significant remaining material value that could be recovered during recycling. However, we must account for the costs of removing the battery from the vehicle, shipping the battery to a disassembler, disassembling the battery to remove the cells from the housing, shipping the individual materials to various recycling operations, and converting the materials into commodities fit for manufacturing new products.
There are many factors to consider, and all these labor, logistics, and processing costs are quite variable. Based on current market data and trends, it is reasonable to expect to pay to properly dispose of a battery, depending on the cathode used, weight and size of the battery pack.
The industry is working every day to improve the economics of proper EV battery disposal. Disassemblers are becoming more efficient through process improvement and adoption of new technologies like automated robotic disassembly. Transitioning from a few centralized facilities to many regional locations, will also support cost reductions.
The recycling of the EV cells is becoming much more sophisticated, with some companies developing direct recycling methods, where the cathode materials are converted into new cathode materials instead of being broken down into their individual components. This is a promising way to extract even more value from the battery.
Over time, the disassembly, logistics, and recycling processes will become optimized, ultimately creating a profitable closed-loop system that rivals and surpasses the proven and successful lead-acid battery recycling story.