Electric cars are touted as a way to cut down on carbon emissions and go green, but while critics point to use of fossil fuels needed to charge them, they have yet another issue: What to do with all the dead batteries?
"The rate at which we're growing the industry is absolutely scary," Paul Anderson from Birmingham University told the BBC.
The European Union is aiming for 30 million electric cars by 2030. In the United States, 90% of cars must be electric by 2050 according to government mandate.
"It's something that's never really been done before at that rate of growth for a completely new product," said Anderson, co-director of the Birmingham Centre for Strategic Elements and Critical Materials.
Electric vehicles are carbon neutral while they are on the road, but Anderson says he worries about their end-of-life — and most especially about their batteries.
"In 10 to 15 years when there are large numbers coming to the end of their life, it's going to be very important that we have a recycling industry," he said.
Unlike lead-acid batteries in fossil-fuel burning automobiles, electric vehicle batteries use lithium-ion batteries, which have to be dismantled. They contain hazardous materials, and if dismantled improperly, they can explode.
"Currently, globally, it's very hard to get detailed figures for what percentage of lithium-ion batteries are recycled, but the value everyone quotes is about 5%," Anderson said. "In some parts of the world it's considerably less."
The EU is working to ensure suppliers don't just dump old batteries. Some manufacturers already are making efforts to recycle.
Nissan and Volkswagen already are using old batteries from their vehicles in the automated guided vehicles that deliver parts to factory workers. Volkswagen also is starting a recycling pilot program.
"As a result of the recycling process, many different materials are recovered. As a first step we focus on cathode metals like cobalt, nickel, lithium and manganese," said Thomas Tiedje of Volkswagen Group Components. "Dismantled parts of the battery systems such as aluminum and copper are given into established recycling streams."
Renault is recycling all its electric car batteries, though that is only about 200 a year currently.
"We are aiming at being able to address 25% of the recycling market. We want to maintain this level of coverage, and of course this would cover by far the needs of Renault," said Jean-Philippe Hermine of Renault. "It's a very open project — it's not to recycle only Renault batteries but all batteries, and also including production waste from the battery manufacturing plants."
"We imagine a more efficient, more cost-effective industry in future, instead of going through some of the processes that are available — and can be scaled up now — but are not terribly efficient," Anderson said.
Robotics are expected to be used because of the danger to humans.
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