Updated: Nov 10, 2021
Today, batteries life extension and end-of-life treatment are limited by product design and lack of rules. Major changes are required to tap the full potential of batteries to power the clean energy transition, giving rise to business opportunities.
Batteries, their development, production and use can contribute to sustainable development and climate change mitigation. Batteries can not only contribute to the significant reduction in carbon emissions in the transport and power sectors, they can also provide electricity for those who currently have no access and create safe and sustainable jobs around the world. However, to achieve this, fundamental changes are required all along the value chain: from materials sourcing, manufacturing, and usage to end-of-life management. Repurposing and recycling end-of-life batteries are amongst the levers expected to contribute significantly to improving the environmental footprint of batteries.
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Addressing the gaps in the sustainable European battery value chain
Batteries and their related issues are relevant to a variety of policy areas, including transport, climate action and energy consumption and natural resources. They play a key role in the European strategy for zero emission mobility and the storage of intermittent renewable energy. Although the full life-cycle emissions of batteries is relatively lower when compared to vehicles using traditional internal combustion engines, the energy-intensive production of batteries results in the production of a significant amount of CO2 emissions. Specifically the manufacturing of active materials, components and cells being the most energy-intensive steps in the battery value chain. This notion gets more and more importance in the light of the impressive global growth of battery demand foreseen.
Indeed, compared to numbers from 2018, the global battery demand is expected to grow by a factor ~14, reaching ~2 600 GWh in 2030 of which ~17% for the EU. With the transport and power sector roughly representing 40% of global emissions (2018), one major driver of demand growth for batteries is electric mobility. Batteries have the potential to enable the shift from fossil fuel to renewable power generation and provide access to electricity to off-grid communities, contributing to the reduction of global carbon emissions.
Looking at the demand by region, China is the leading market, followed by Europe and the US. It goes without saying that China is a strong competitor in the race towards cleaner energy.
To deliver on the Paris Agreement commitments for energy decarbonisation, Europe is on its way to build an internal sustainable battery value chain . Mandatory regulations such as the new Battery Regulation and the fit for 55 package are likely to accelerate the clean energy transition. However, in order to become self-sufficient, the major gaps between the existing EU capacity and the expected EU demand for 2030 needs be addressed. Specifically in terms of the sourcing of raw- and active materials as well as end-of-life management. In 2018 it was already foreseen that by 2030 the EU recycling capacities will be required to increase with a factor over 25 compared to the time of writing.
Business interests are clear for batteries as the market size foreseen is significant but the environmental and economic footprint of batteries still has to be improved.
Moving from a linear to a circular battery value chain is key to do so. Impactful levers to be considered include: electric shared mobility, smart charging and vehicle-to-grid, refurbishment and repair, repurposing, and recycling. The following sections will shed more light on the repurposing and recycling of batteries and the related obstacles as well as potential opportunities for companies to tap into.
Batteries life extension and end-of-life treatment are limited by product design and lack of rules
Today, 2 types of batteries are particularly prominent: lithium-ion and lead-acid batteries. Lithium-ion batteries have attracted a continuously increasing academic and industrial interest due to the technology allowing low-cost development and better integration. Despite the controversy of lead-acid batteries and their potential threat to human health and the environment, they are expected to maintain a significant representation in the future battery market. For these reasons we further highlight these two types of battery technologies
The majority of vehicles on the road currently require a lead-acid battery for starter, light and ignition functions. They are used as industrial batteries and are increasing in popularity in developing countries for off-grid energy renewable storage. However, lead is a toxic heavy metal that, due to its non-biodegradable nature and ubiquity, accumulates in the environment. Although lead is being phased out of applications such as gasoline and paint, the demand for lead-acid batteries is foreseen to grow to ~ 490 GWh by 2030.
End-of-life treatment for lead-acid batteries can be managed very well. Mature economies, such as Europe and North America, overall have appropriate and environmentally sound collection and recycling systems in place, including high standards for worker safety. These are however lacking in many developing countries: half of end-of-life batteries are reprocessed in improper facilities and conditions. A recent report revealed that informal and below standard recycling of lead-acid batteries is the key contributor to lead poising of children in low- and middle-income countries. The countries often affected generally lack the knowledge and regulations to prevent exposure to workers, their children and surrounding areas.
This state-of-the art electrochemical energy storage technology is significant for electric vehicle batteries with their long life, high energy and power density and high load capacity. The global lithium-ion battery market is predicted to reach the scale of ~100 billion US dollars.
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However, obstacles for the life extension and end-of-life treatment of lithium-ion batteries are found in the product design itself. The potential for disassembly is limited and with that the recovery of the materials for repurposing and recycling. Due to the complexity of their construction, reprocessing of batteries generally starts with battery modules shredding. Separating and yielding active material of sufficient purity to form new battery materials from the shredded components is most difficult.
Current recycling methods for lithium-ion batteries are generally based on hydrometallurgical or pyrometallurgical methods, each method having their own advantages and disadvantages. The development of efficient waste separation methods is needed to obtain processable waste streams and increase the recycled material yield and purity.
A novel solution to get the most out of battery waste
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The complex set of physical and chemical processes currently comprising battery recycling are generally energy intensive and inefficient. But there is hope.
For example, allowing disassembly of waste batteries rather than shredding, would allow more material and of higher purity to be recovered. Researchers at the University of Leicester developed a novel method to recycle waste lithium-ion batteries, enabling the separation of the active material from composite electrodes using high-powered ultrasound. Using this simple method, the amount of material that can be processed and in a given time and volume can be increased significantly, in addition to producing a high-purity and high-value material appropriate for recycling into new electrodes.
EU policy considerations and targets for battery waste treatment
Product design of batteries is critical to move towards a circular battery value chain. This shift can be further empowered by enabling data sharing between key stakeholders and the harmonisation of national and international legislations. The recent European Commission’s proposal for new battery regulation includes policy measures and sub-measures to address the problems related to the entire life cycle of batteries placed on the EU market. Amongst the sub-measures, the second life of industrial batteries, their collection and recycling is considered. Collection targets for batteries for 2025 and 2030 are set to 65% and 70%, respectively. Additional targets are considered for the recycling efficiency of lithium-ion and lead-acid batteries, as well as targets for material recovery, including cobalt, nickel, lithium, copper, and lead. In the 2006/66/CE directive, the recycling of lead-acid batteries and accumulators was set to 65% by average weight. New targets are set to at least 75% recycling efficiency and 90% material recovery for lead-acid batteries by 2025.
Business opportunities arise for the development of a sustainable European battery value chain
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For Europe to position itself as a leader in the circular economy and create a strong and sustainable battery value chain on its own soil, it is critical to accelerate battery recycling capacities. The number of actors, initiatives and projects in this field are significantly increasing.
Over the past two decades some European actors have emerged, potentially taking a chance at Belgium-based material recycling company Umicore 's current monopoly. Swedish battery developer and manufacturer Northvolt AB (valuation: $11.75 billion), aims to contribute to the acceleration of the transition of a decarbonised future by building one of the largest European factory for battery cells and systems. Fortum has recently made the investment decision to build a new state-of-the-art hydrometallurgical recycling plant in Finland, expanding its lithium-ion battery recycling capacity. New technologies are also emerging, such as lifelong nuclear waste-powered batteries, aiming to address both the issues of nuclear waste storage and the need for renewable energy resources. Innovation ecosystems are at work as well as projects led by industry collaborations including names such as Orano Group, Solvay, Veolia and Stena Recycling.
Decarbonisation and transitioning towards cleaner energy is a very complex issue facing industrialised societies. The pressure from environmental concerns and regulations force companies to act now. The EU’s ambition for climate neutrality however also presents opportunities for companies to fill the existing gaps in the envisioned sustainable European battery value chain.