San Diego — The auto industry must find ways to recycle electric vehicle batteries as the transition from internal combustion engines accelerates toward the end of this decade, executives from automakers and major battery suppliers said at the Advanced Automotive Battery Conference.
Automakers such as Ford Motor Co. have agreements with lithium, nickel and other material suppliers to meet EV production targets for 2025 and into the latter half of the decade, said Ted Miller, senior manager of battery cell research and advanced engineering at Ford.
But the industry faces "bigger risks" starting in 2030, and he said companies are "working feverishly" to manage those threats.
"There's never been this much demand for lithium on Earth, ever," Miller said at the conference Dec. 7.
While companies are pouring billions of dollars into new mining and processing facilities worldwide, it takes upward of a decade for a new U.S. mine to begin extracting materials. Automakers don't have time to wait as they look to ramp up EV production and meet mandates such as California's ban on sales of new gasoline-powered vehicles in 2035.
Recycling could play a significant role in providing automakers and battery manufacturers with enough materials to produce battery cells into the next decade and beyond, said Timothy Grewe, general director of electrification strategy and cell engineering at General Motors.
GM wants at least 75 percent of the materials for its batteries sourced from within North America by 2030, Grewe said. Returned vehicles "could actually become the best source of critical materials," he said.
"We need to work with recyclers to make sure that the recycled material works just as good as anything that we can mine," Grewe said.
That is easier said than done. It will take years to build scale in EV battery recycling since the number of older EVs on the road today is tiny compared with the number of gasoline-powered vehicles.
"The darn batteries just last too long, so that's going to be quite a ways out there before we get scale on this," Grewe said.
There's also the matter of designing batteries with end-of-life recycling in mind. It is "really hard" to design a battery for recycling when the focus is on the manufacturing process, Miller said.
"But we'll find the right balance," he said. "We're much further along in the design for assembly, but we haven't forgotten about the fact that we also need these to be re-deployable and be able to be safely taken apart."
Battery maker Clarios is drawing on its experience in recycling lead-acid batteries for internal combustion engine vehicles, said Craig Rigby, the company's vice president of technology. He said Clarios recovers a lead-acid battery for each one it sells in North America, with more than 80 percent of the content in new lead-acid batteries coming from recycled materials.
"In the long term, if we can achieve these same kinds of numbers in lithium ion batteries over the next decade, that will be a huge step in contributing to a sustainable supply chain in this country," he said.
Clarios, the former battery business of Johnson Controls Inc., also has experience in recovering plastics from lead-acid batteries, including injection molded polypropylene cases.
Recycling will be particularly important in the U.S., where investors sometimes do not view massive, capital-intensive mining projects with long lead times as attractive investments. While the Inflation Reduction Act and the bipartisan infrastructure law will help make capital available and stabilize demand for EV batteries, front-end investments alone will not be enough, Rigby said.
"If we're going to get to a sustainable supply chain, you cannot do that simply by building things up on the front end," he said.