Reusing and recycling electric car batteries

by Steph Carty 2 years ago

It’s all very well buying an electric car for environmental reasons, but two things always have to be remembered; how are electric batteries reused and can electric car batteries be recycled? Find out more below…

Firstly, just like a traditional petrol or diesel powered car, the power in an electric car has to come from somewhere. The answer of course is from an electricity generator or power station which in turn will more than likely, here in the UK anyway, be powered by nuclear reaction or gas and increasingly from wind turbines and solar panels. As every year passes, the production of our electricity is getting greener sand greener. May 2019 for example was the first time the UK saw over 50 per cent of its power produced by zero carbon sources as opposed to from fossil fuel.

Coal has just about disappeared from power stations in the UK. Hydro power and other methods such as wave and biomass are tiny but showing slight increases. We also import some electricity via cables under the sea from Holland, France and Ireland.

That’s the downside….power has to be sourced to charge your battery. On the plus side, when your car uses the electric power supplied by the battery, there are zero emissions.

The second thing is how we recycle materials from our cars. Thankfully, manufacturers are making more and more materials reusable. A hefty chunk of the metal and plastic can now be recycled.

But, what about the batteries which are used to power our electric cars?

As you’d expect, compared to traditional cars which have a lead cell battery which is purely used to start the car, (the alternator then provides all of the electricity for lights, heaters, radio and to keep the engine running), electric cars and hybrid cars have a much larger battery. Most are situated under the floor panels; some are found along the back of the rear seat while others are in the boot. In terms of size, the vast majority of 21stCentury electric cars have a battery which roughly fills the underfloor space between the front and rear wheels. In other words, it’s long, wide, flat and reasonably thin. It’s also quite heavy.

 The components of the MEB battery system for electric cars
The components of the MEB battery system for electric cars

But, like any battery, it has a shelf life. Just like the battery in your mobile phone, iPad or laptop, in the early years, it will charge to 100 per cent, hold that charge and last a surprising amount of time between charges.

Sadly, as the years pass, you will spot that the battery will charge to 100 per cent remarkably quickly and, you guessed it, lose its charge more and more rapidly. At some point it will need replacing which, although it can be quite expensive, will restore your car (and mobile phone) to its original working order.

What happens to the chunky electric battery which has been sat under your seat?

Most electric cars use lithium-ion batteries (which were invented in Oxford in 1980). Lithium-ion is a mixture of commodities like cobalt, graphite, nickel and lithium. There’s also copper in the various leads and connections. It’s worth stating straight away that these are valuable commodities and are well worth salvaging…….which is good news. If they weren’t worth salvaging, you can guarantee that the battery would almost certainly have gone to landfill.

How a Lithium-ion battery works
How a Lithium-ion battery works

There are also EU regulations which stipulate that battery and car manufacturers must be involved in dealing with collecting and recycling batteries. We are already starting to see car firms and recycling companies forming alliances to ensure that recycling takes place.

Metal can be recycled again and again and reused to make another battery. It will have the same effectiveness as the original battery. Obviously there will be a need for new batteries whilst the demand for new electric cars increases, but eventually, the potential is for a car battery to be replaced with one that has been recovered and recycled from old batteries.

There’s also a growing market in using car batteries for domestic electrical storage. Even though the battery will no longer provide the long, steady supply of power for an electric car, it will generally still charge up to around 80 per cent. These batteries are now being used as a back-up for if the mains supply fails.

More and more companies are being established to recycle batteries and, thankfully, the car manufacturers are now keen to show that they care for the planet. In other words, yes, your electric car’s battery can be recycled. The technology still has some catching-up to do but, one thing is for certain, they won’t go into landfill and, given time, will eventually be recycled and find a new home in another electric car.