Lithium-Ion Battery Safety
May 25, 2024

Recharge, Reuse, Recycle: Closing the Loop on EV Batteries - Circularity 24


“Recycling a battery is an inherently dangerous process – you’re dealing with toxic materials, flammable liquids, stored energy, high voltage… arcing and sparking… there’s a lot of forces going back and forth on how to get it to work, but fundamentally there’s tremendous value there.” - Roger Lin, Vice President, Global Marketing and Government Relations, Ascend Elements.

Caitlin Panel 1
Dan Bowerson and Caitlin D'Onofrio

With approximately 3.3 million electric vehicles on U.S. roads in 2024, many are asking what is being done to accelerate EV battery recycling and other circular practices that will become necessary when these vehicles reach the end of their service life. At Circularity 24, Caitlin D’Onofrio of UL Standards & Engagement joined experts Laura LoSciuto of RMI, Roger Lin of Ascend Elements, and Dan Bowerson of Energy & Environment Alliance for Automotive Innovation to address this question and more in the panel discussion, “Recharge, Reuse, Recycle: Closing the Loop on EV Batteries.” 

EV battery creation and lifecycle in a circular economy

To open the session, panelists discussed the main components of an EV battery and the battery supply chain – from mining to processing, and from consumer use to recycling and end-of-life practices.

“While there is sort of abundant resources in lithium, nickel, manganese, cobalt out there,” Lin said, “When you can’t store a charge anymore, you’ve worn out the energy storage piece of it, those elements remain. And in fact, a lithium-ion battery is probably the richest ore on the planet to get all those critical minerals back out and put them into the supply chain, so we’re being driven as an industry not just to be sustainable and low impact, but also to be as efficient and economic as possible.”

“When the vehicle hits its end of life, the battery still probably has about 60% or so capacity left in it, so there are opportunities to use that battery for grid storage, renewable energy storage, etc…” Bowerson said. “It will be interesting to see how the economics play out. Will it be more economical after that first life to get it to Ascend to recycle the materials and get that back into the supply chain for new batteries, or will it be more economical and more practical to use that battery for energy storage?”

They also discussed what circularity means in the battery supply chain, and what kind of information is needed for the industry to label a battery “circular.” 

“As of right now, it’s very hard to get common definitions,” D’Onofrio said. “If you ask everybody in this room to define a circular battery, everybody is going to say something different. That’s where standards come in. They can provide that framework to have that common definition – defined in a published document.”

D’Onofrio shared details on the forthcoming standard UL 3601, which will cover circular processes for lithium-ion batteries.

“It’s going to be a great transition – when we consider what a ‘circular battery’ is,” D’Onofrio said, “If we have a standard, we have that framework, and can measure and quantify what is in that scope.”

Roger Lin, Dan Bowerson, and Caitlin D'Onofrio
Roger Lin, Dan Bowerson, and Caitlin D'Onofrio

How a circular economy for EV batteries can reduce challenges in the supply chain and enable the transition to EVs

Panelists discussed challenges facing the EV battery supply chain, including supply constraints, supply chain resiliency, and geopolitical considerations. They also explored how a circular battery economy could help address those challenges.

“Supply chain concerns are certainly top-of-mind for auto manufacturers and their suppliers,” Bowerson said. “As we transition, we’re still going to be reliant on those countries that maybe don’t share our same values.”

“To what extent will the supply chain ever be circular for critical minerals tike lithium, nickel, and cobalt, and how much are we still going to rely on mining?” LoSciuto asked. 

“As the EV market grows, you’re always going to have more come out of the ground initially than from recycling over time,” Lin said. “As the EV market begins to taper off and slow in its growth, you may see now that you charge the system with enough lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese, graphite, etc.. to then feed itself and continue to be circular… it can be done for lithium. It’s just a bit more complex and more challenging to do it efficiently and in an economic manner.”

“A lot of people are hesitant to buy EVs because they don’t know what’s going to happen to their battery,” D’Onofrio added. “Ensuring that an EV owner knows that their battery is going to have a second life might actually help to push that transition.”

Changes and actions needed to move toward a circular battery economy

Later in the discussion, the panelists discussed whether the electric vehicle battery recycling industry is ready for the number of batteries that will reach the end of their service life in the next decade, and explored the technologies and policies that will be required. They explored the benefits and outcomes of tax credits to incentivize recycling, and regulation to prevent improper disposal, as well as standards to help guide the recycling industry safely.

“I think there can be support, from a tactical perspective, on what is inside an end-of life lithium-ion battery,” Lin said. “Obviously, we still need to be economically viable, so we know what the value of that battery is. An NMC battery versus an LFP battery have very different values – one is very easily reclaimed and profitable for recycling. The other is much, much harder. So that’s where standards around labeling and critical mineral metal content are going to be important.” 

“That’s where standards really do come in,” D’Onofrio added, “It’s that holistic safety approach that we bring to these types of processes, because these batteries are extremely dangerous to discharge, and depending on chemical makeup, each requires a different process to discharge and disassemble. Requiring digital product passports on these batteries will help remanufacturing and repurposing facilities actually determine the chemical makeup and necessary process faster. It will make their jobs a lot easier and a lot safer. So that’s where standards really do bridge that gap between safety and sustainability.”

Learn more about our standards for sustainability and how you can get involved here.
 

Laura LoSciuto, Roger Lin, Dan Bowerson, and Caitlin D'Onofrio
Laura LoSciuto, Roger Lin, Dan Bowerson, and Caitlin D'Onofrio