EV battery recycling initiative addresses waste reduction, but far more besides

Whilst reducing carbon emissions is at the forefront of everyone’s minds, it is important to note that many decisions related to decarbonisation can have unintended consequences. To date most concerns relate to the economic impact of migrating from fossil fuels to alternative energies, but there are wider ethical, security and even environmental risks which must be taken into account.

The manufacture of battery cells for electric vehicles is a case in point. Little consideration has been given to how to deal with the estimated 250,000 tons of batteries which will reach their end-of-life in Europe alone by 2030.

This is just one of the reasons why the recent announcement by Northvolt, the European supplier of battery cells and systems, is so important. It has produced its first battery cell with 100% recycled nickel, manganese and cobalt from battery waste with a performance on a par with cells produced from freshly-mined metals. All recycling and production processes were completed in Sweden and a ‘giga-plant’ is presently under construction, due to commence production in 2023, which will also have the capability to recycle lithium from batteries.

Emma Nehrenheim, Northvolt’s Chief Environmental Officer, commented: “What we have shown here is a clear pathway to closing the loop on batteries and that there exists a sustainable, environmentally-preferable alternative to conventional mining in order to source raw materials for battery production.”

This is obviously good news in itself but it also has a number of other major supply chain implications.

  • The success of European battery cell manufacturers will be important strategically to the region’s automotive sector. China is the dominant manufacturer of batteries for electric vehicles and European auto companies risk losing their market competitiveness.
  • Europe and the US find themselves in competition with China for many of the Critical Raw Materials used in batteries. China has spent billions in establishing control of mines and transport systems in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Recycling batteries would help the West create self-sufficiency at a time of rapidly deteriorating relations.
  • Little consideration is paid to the conditions in which miners in emerging and ‘frontier’ markets work. In places such as Congo, the industry has attracted criticism for child labour practices, environmental mismanagement and the sale of conflict minerals to support local warlords.

The ability to manufacture batteries from recycled materials is absolutely critical to the future success of the EV market. Moving from linear ‘take, make waste’ supply chains to circular alternatives will be essential if environmental, ethical and security considerations are to be overcome. Northvolt’s initiative will go some way to lessen the West’s need for virgin materials, reduce end-of-life waste as well as create strategic autonomy.

Source: Transport Intelligence, 30th November 2021

Author: John Manners-Bell