With the global number of used electric vehicle batteries set to grow exponentially, we must take action now to ensure circular life cycle management, says Everledger’s CEO Leanne Kemp. Battery passports, recorded on the blockchain, are emerging as a sustainable solution.
If we’re honest, the human race has got a lousy track record of mitigating disasters before they happen. Instead of tidying up as we play, we prefer to hide the mess behind the sofa. The climate crisis, as well as the plastics one, are sorry examples of this live-for-the-moment approach. Even with fair warning, we expect to innovate out of a problem, rather than prevent it in the first place.
Electric vehicle batteries (EVBs) provide an opportunity to learn the lessons of the past. After all, we know what’s coming. The global stockpile of used lithium-ion (Li-Ion) electric vehicle batteries is expected to grow exponentially, from around 14 GWh, or 102,000 tonnes in 2020 to more than 7.8 million tonnes per year globally by 2040.
The choice is therefore clear. Either we create a multibillion dollar global market for used batteries that maximizes the recovery of raw materials and accelerates the development of climate-friendly mobility. Or… we respond too slowly and risk creating a new ecological disaster. With an average life span of eight to 10 years, many of the first EVBs are now reaching the end of the road. The time for action is now.
There are some encouraging signs that governments, car and battery manufacturers, as well as the wider tech ecosystem, are recognizing the opportunities and challenges of creating a circular EVB value chain. Acceleration events are occurring around the globe, whether in digital trade, commodities exchange, sustainability, provenance or traceability.
A good example of this proactivity was recently launched in New Zealand, where EVB recycling and repurposing is still at an embryonic stage. To date, just 200 EVBs have been officially scrapped, although 1,000 have recently come to the end of their lives. This figure is expected to rise to 84,000 by 2030. To combat the growing need, the Battery Industry Group (B.I.G.) initiative involving car manufacturer Audi and energy supplier Vector, with membership spanning 170 businesses across energy, transport, waste, and battery sectors, has developed the world’s first battery traceability platform, or ‘battery passport’, for the automotive industry.
Designed by digital transparency company Everledger, the battery passport offers critical at-a-glance information about each Li-Ion battery, including chemistry, state of health and ownership transfer data that can be passed on to each new owner until the battery reaches the end of its life. The passport is a unique electronic record for each individual battery, traceable on an exchange system that collects, stores and processes battery information.
Connected to the internet by IoT, and then secured by blockchain technology, the passport allows EV manufacturers and owners to track and report the lifetime journey of each battery, demonstrating its sustainable management from first use to repurposing and, eventually, responsible recycling.
Life after death
The danger of end-of-life batteries being downcycled and then disposed of in landfill, is not only unsustainable but also highly unsafe. The battery passport aims to reduce the number of ‘orphan’ batteries that end up untracked and unwanted with car dealerships, independent garages and auto recyclers when they fall out of warranty. The long-term ambition is to create a regulated market – similar to acid lead batteries – whereby raw materials are recycled or whole units repurposed into energy storage batteries. It’s worth remembering that a ‘dead’ EVB will retain 70% or more of its charge, which, while no longer powerful enough for a car, is plenty for 10 or even 12 more years’ use in backup storage for renewable energy in both domestic and industrial settings.
The B.I.G. initiative has received funding from the New Zealand Ministry for the Environment, which is prioritizing battery management in its efforts to control e-waste. Government support and regulation will prove crucial in creating a new circular economy for large batteries and front-footing the e-waste challenge. In Europe, the European Commission has taken future-focused measures to regulate the expected 14-fold growth in EV and portable batteries over the next decade, as part of its European Green Deal to achieve climate neutrality and zero pollution targets by 2050.
Their Circular Economy Action Plan will standardize the battery industry to ensure that all products placed on the EU market become sustainable along their entire life cycle. According to the directive, all batteries should be repurposed, recycled or properly disposed of, feeding valuable materials back into the economy. That’s what I’ve called “urban mining”.
Safe data sharing will prove critical for tracking the flow of materials from extraction through to manufacture, primary and secondary use, and then end of life. Without this transparency, any regulations are hard to enforce. This year, the EU will launch a feasibility study for its own battery passport system, which aims to increase the minimum share of recovered cobalt, lead, lithium or nickel in batteries over the next 15 years.
Manufacturers will also need to take a leading role in managing the EVB situation. Currently, the onus on battery life cycle management globally is placed on vehicle manufacturers, over the actual battery manufacturers. This obligation to sustainably manage battery materials is a financial and reputational opportunity, given the vast second-life potential for electric vehicle batteries and the fast-emerging circular economy.
Ford Motor Company is currently running pilot schemes into battery passports with funding from the United States Department of Energy. Relevant stakeholders gain full visibility over a battery’s location, condition, health score, and which metals could be recycled for use in new batteries. This visibility will help create a circular system whereby more elements are re-used, less waste is generated, and the environment is better protected from metal leakage.
There is a lot to play for. The societal impact of batteries can become a major driver to keep the transport and power sectors on track to meet Paris Agreement targets. According to the World Economic Forum, the battery value chain could enable 30% of the required emissions reductions in these two sectors, create 10 million jobs and $150 billion in economic value in 2030.
Yet, there is still a danger that the rapid, organic growth of EVs will result in a haphazard and fractured system for battery re-use and recycling – an anti-system – that is unsafe, inefficient, wasteful, and non-compliant. Battery passports could help divert that missed opportunity.
The sprint towards 2030 and net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 will rely on the rapid formation of industry efforts and government-led focus. New battery technologies, enhanced supply chain traceability, software engineering systems and policy regulations will all help reduce the environmental and social impact of all batteries throughout their life cycle.
Let’s not look back in anger on this one.