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The fight to stop a growing wave of waste from ‘green’ electric cars

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Less than five per cent of lithium-ion batteries sold in Australia are currently recovered and recycled. The rest end up in landfill.

That's prompting the question — what will happen when the volume of battery waste grows as more electric vehicles (EVs) start driving on our roads?

Most existing battery waste comes from small electronic devices like phones, laptops and power tools, so it is not yet a major problem.

But according to a report prepared for the Federal Department of Environment by Randall Environmental Consulting, the scale of waste is predicted to soar.

A photo of an e-waste collection bin for used phones, batteries and ink cartridges.

It found battery waste would grow at a rate of 20 per cent a year once the first wave of electric car batteries and home storage systems run out of zap towards the middle of the next decade.

Electric cars are expected to add the most to waste volumes, with a predicted yearly growth rate of 50 per cent.

External Link: Projected lithium-ion battery waste

The estimate does not include major pledges like the one Elon Musk made last week to give 50,000 homes in South Australia solar panels and batteries which is likely to blow out predictions.

"Once [those batteries] come to the end of their life … we're going to have very large volumes of batteries which will end up in landfill," CSIRO researcher Anand Bhatt said.

"That's when the environmental problems will start [but] industry is talking to us now, they've recognised this is a problem that is coming and they want CSIRO's help."

Dr Anand Bhatt from the CSIRO connecting batteries on a table with a cable.

Hand-me-down batteries to power your home

Dr Bhatt is leading a team of CSIRO researchers working alongside companies to improve battery storage technology, and is also looking at ways of reusing batteries once they run out of steam for an energy-intensive car engine.

"Once a battery in an electric vehicle reaches its end of life, it still has 80 per cent of its capacity still available for other applications," he said.

"If you transfer that to a home with energy storage, you can get another 30 per cent out of that battery pack."

It is a concept EV enthusiast and Australian Electric Vehicle Association vice chair Chris Jones has already tested out at his home in Perth.

He has built his own electric bike using lithium-ion cells, and also recovers old lithium-ion batteries which he recharges using solar panels to power his shed.

Chris Jones from the Electric Vehicle Association WA wears safety glasses as he uses hand tools in a workshop.

"The main thing you can do once they've passed their usable life in the car is to use it for stationary energy storage," he said.

You'd use it for stationary energy storage for your solar panels at home and that will easily get another 10-15 years out of them to run your house.

"After that, they really need to be taken to a dedicated plant where they are disassembled and separated into their components and recycled."

Boosting a battery's second life

Melbourne-based company Relectrify has developed technology which improves the so-called "second life" potential of lithium-ion batteries using hi-tech monitoring software.

A close-up of a green circuit-board on the front of a lithium-ion battery.

"When you take a used battery out of an electric car, the challenge is that [it] is made up of many individual batteries that don't perform evenly", Relectrify CEO Valentin Muenzel said.

"When one of those batteries starts to get weaker, the entire battery starts to suffer.

"What Relectrify does is ensures that when you get a collection of used batteries out of one vehicle … you get the maximum out of every single one."

Mr Muenzel said the process generated a 30 per cent increase in the lifetime of the batteries along with a 20 per cent increase in their performance.

"You can reuse them without it but then you have a much shorter lifetime," he said.

"So even after that first use, they can be repurposed into what is called a second life — as household energy storage or grid scale storage or other applications beyond that — and still offer 3,000 discharge cycles.

"[That] in a home is maybe five to eight years, depending on how often you charge and discharge."

Mr Muenzel said his company was in talks with several global car manufacturers and had signed a deal with Volkswagen.

The 'cradle-to-grave' solution

Beyond a second life, the batteries can also be recycled, with 95 per cent of the components able to be reused.

That is a solution Perth-based lithium miner Neometals is pursuing, with the company building its own recycling plant in Canada.

Neometals managing director Chris Reed stands and smiles with the company's reception area in the background.

"It's really a cradle-to-grave solution — at Mount Marion [mine], we are producing the lithium units and then recycling," Neometals managing director Chris Reed said.

"We are taking them back at the end product, unscrambling the egg, recovering the valuables and reinserting them and basically making a more sustainable business model.

"Our plan is to locate the plant alongside an existing facility, so we take the scrap in the production process and then we can scale the plant up as the batteries come back to end-of-life."

The solutions are all feasible options being considered to ensure the industry does not add to the world's ever-expanding landfill problem.

The challenge for governments and industry is making sure they are ready for when the first influx of batteries arrives.

Call for more infrastructure

Randall Environmental Consulting director Paul Randall said more planning was needed.

"Wherever it is viable, waste batteries should be collected via take-back schemes," he said.

"Investment will be required for waste battery collection infrastructure at transfer stations to manage batteries that are not effectively captured by any future take-back scheme, as not all sites are currently well set-up to manage waste batteries.

"We also need to ensure that our waste collection infrastructure … [is] set up to safely collect waste batteries to ensure that risks of electric shock, fire and contamination of the site are appropriately managed."

But analysts believe the bulk of the recycling will happen offshore, close to battery manufacturers.

"In your current battery technology, you've got lithium, you've got colbalt and you've got nickel sulphite, and all three of those commodities potentially could be recycled out of your existing battery", Guiliano Sala Tenna from Bell Potter Securities said.

"So we think you'll see recycling that will look to separate the compounds and then perhaps do the blend with fresh ore as well, to produce future batteries.

"We think the natural participants in that market will be the manufacturers of the batteries themselves … we will see them invest in that in due course, but that's still five to 10 years off."

A row of recycled lithium ion batteries in a bright teal casing sit on a table.

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