By: Toby Hagon

Electric car batteries are big and, as with any battery, they won’t last forever. So how will we deal with an increasingly large number of those big batteries once they reach the end of their life?

Electric vehicles (EV) currently account for a little over one percent of all new-vehicle sales in Australia, but the imminent influx of new models, various state and territory incentives, growing international popularity and increasing interest locally in going electric means we’re likely to see many more on the roads over the coming decade.

There’s an immediate benefit to the air we breathe as well as the potential for zero harmful greenhouse gas emissions if powering them with renewable energy.

But beyond the life of the vehicle, there’s the question of what happens to those big batteries in EVs when a car being bought today is eventually retired?

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Exposed electric car battery and chassis
Electric car chassis with lithium-ion battery pack

The valuable elements in an EV battery

Even a small electric car with less than 200km of range can have a few hundred kilograms of batteries. Larger ones that can travel upwards of 500km could have more than half a tonne of batteries.

That’s a lot of aluminium, graphite, nickel, copper, cobalt, steel and lithium, as well as other materials such as plastics and various electrolytes.

The ore used to create steel is cheap and even aluminium is relatively affordable, but cobalt, lithium and nickel can be expensive.

And lithium-ion batteries are more popular than ever. The Battery Stewardship Council estimates that by 2036 Australians will dispose of between 137,000 and 186,000 tonnes of lithium-ion batteries annually.

Considering we currently only recycle about six percent of those batteries, that’s a lot of material to potentially save from landfill.

Lifespan of EV batteries

Batteries are the most expensive component of an electric car. New energy data analyst BNEF estimates each kilowatt-hour of battery capacity will drop to $US100 to manufacture by 2023, less than one-tenth what it cost in 2010.

But for an EV with a relatively small 40kWh battery pack that still means $US4000 of batteries. Larger EVs could have $US10,000 or more in batteries.

Plug-in hybrid electric cars use the same lithium-ion technology as EVs, although they have smaller battery packs because they also have a traditional engine to extend the driving range.

Electric car battery unit

All of these batteries will all lose their ability to hold full charge over time.

Many would have experienced this with other rechargeable devices such as a smartphone or laptop computer, each of which uses the same battery technology used in EVs.

Most EV makers offer a longer warranty on the high voltage battery pack than the rest of the car. It typically covers eight years and around 160,000km of driving and guarantees at least 70 percent of the original battery capacity, providing more certainty on battery life longevity.

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Recycle and reuse

But that value in the battery of an EV does not dissolve as the car is retired.

Valuable metals make recycling appealing, according to CSIRO Principal Research Scientist Dr Gavin Collis from the Manufacturing Business Unit.

He nominates nickel, manganese, cobalt and lithium as among the most expensive of up to 20 elements in an average lithium-ion battery (not all batteries contain the same materials).

In a 2020 report, the CSIRO estimated that each tonne of lithium-ion battery waste could be worth between $4,400 and $17,200 in materials. That could amount to a few thousand dollars for each EV on the road – and up to $3.2 billion nationally by 2036.

But extracting those materials in a pure form is challenging.

While lead acid batteries, that have been used for more than a century and are still used for the electrical systems of all cars, EVs included – are relatively easily recycled, lithium-ion batteries used in EVs and modern hybrids are more complex.

“Current batteries are not designed for a circular economy, so they’re not designed to be disassembled easily and valuable components recovered,” says Dr Collis.

At the end of their usable life, batteries are crushed into “black mass” before often energy-intensive processes are used to separate the materials.

“Separating the black mass is still a challenge,” says Dr Collis. “There are lots of groups working to improve that process.”

It doesn’t help that there are different chemistries used in different lithium-ion batteries.

One difference is lithium iron phosphate batteries used in Teslas sold here since early 2021. They don’t contain cobalt so are cheaper to manufacture.

Giant factory in the desert
Tesla Gigafactory in Nevada, USA produces battery packs for the Model 3

Cobalt is expensive and, like most mined minerals, resources and fossil fuels, can be toxic to humans and the environment. But managed properly the risks can be mitigated, according to Dr Thomas Ruether, Senior Research Scientist in the CSIRO's Electrochemical Energy Storage division.

Despite the challenges, EV batteries are being recycled elsewhere.

One American-based company, Li-Cycle, claims to be unique in taking all types of lithium-ion batteries to produce “battery-grade lithium-ion chemicals”.

Another based in Sweden, Northvolt, has its battery recycling facility alongside a battery manufacturing plant that uses those recycled materials.

“That’s where the scale comes in,” says Dr Collis.

Northvolt says batteries are up to 97 per cent recyclable, something that is “lowering the demand for fresh material and moving closer to closing the loop on batteries”.

Aerial shot of river, fields and factory
Northvolt's battery factory in Skellefteå, Sweden

Other uses for EV batteries

It doesn’t help that recyclability hasn’t been high on the agenda for battery manufacturers and car makers. Scaling up, improving energy density, reducing costs and making batteries safe have taken precedence over what will happen to those batteries a decade or more into the future.

Another option over recycling is to give batteries a second life.

Existing battery packs can be used for static storage for homes or businesses, for example, although there are intricacies, such as how that battery physically fits into its new location and how much electricity it can store after hundreds of thousands of kilometres in a car.

Reconditioning batteries is already happening with the nickel-metal hydride batteries commonly used in Toyota hybrids.

It can however be labour intensive and complex for lithium-ion batteries.

And given the pace of development of batteries – tens of billions is being poured into development of better batteries – it means bringing a battery back to an outdated standard.

White electric car with black background
Nissan Leaf II ZE1

The next generation

Dr Collis believes extracting raw materials could be more beneficial if scientific and engineering challenges can be resolved.

“You probably want to get that material out and put it into a next generation battery, not keep it for a second life.”

He also says battery manufacturers need to think about recycling from the start.

“With the next generation batteries, there’s an opportunity to make them better designed [to improve recyclability or reuse]” says Dr Collis.

It’s something not lost on car makers, who increasingly view sustainability and recyclability as something as marketable as safety or technology.

“Sustainability is a driver within the premium segment,” says the CEO of EV newcomer Polestar, part owned by Volvo. “The consumer in the beginning will pay a premium for the luxury of having a lower CO2 footprint with the car you buy.”

At Polestar, their head of sustainability, Fredrika Klarén, says battery recycling is a key part of the brand’s focus.

“Circular batteries is on top of our agenda,” she says. “We know that we need to reach circularity on the battery level to have a sustainable use and consumption of batteries.”

Man looking at a white car
The Polestar 2 electric car on display in New York City

Scaling up

Tesla sells more EVs than any other brand even though it doesn’t report Australian sales figures. Best estimates are there are something like 40,000 EVs in Australia, most of which were bought in the last two years and are still on the road, with many more years to come before their batteries reach the end of their life.

The lack of EV batteries to recycle right now and the perceived ease with which we dig raw materials out of the ground means current demand for recycling is low.

And the demand has been focused on smaller applications such as consumer electronics.

Dr Collis says the fast-growing demand for batteries and the inevitability that one day raw materials will become harder to source means the balance should eventually shift to recycling.

“If we start having shortages for battery materials, I think that’s where you’ll really start to see recycling start to pick up,” he says. “The scale of the lithium-ion battery market growth in years to come is going to be massive.”

Watch and learn

From EV take-up to hydrogen for energy and CO2 emissions, Australia continues to lag in the electric revolution.

But Dr Collis sees an advantage.

Through collaborations with other national laboratories around the world he says, “we can leverage off them and see what we can adapt for Australia”.

He believes Australia’s expertise in mining, manufacturing and energy can be leveraged in recycling and build into an Australian battery value chain.

Already CSIRO is investigating opportunities with other countries to process black mass to develop a viable industry in the region.

Given the growing popularity of EVs it should create quite an industry. 

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Last updated: November 2021