What Happens to Old Electric Car Batteries

by John Girdle
What Happens to Old Electric Car Batteries

We are all aware about what a battery does for us on a daily basis but have you ever wondered what happens to old electric car batteries? Do they get recycled or reused?

Electric car batteries are some of the most complex types of batteries and are quite hard to break-down. These batteries require special care and the dismantling process can only be carried out by trained professionals.

It’s these batteries which are the main cause of green-house gasses and disposing of them in the right way is something that has to be followed no matter which country you’re from.

Let’s take a quick look at what happens to electric car batteries when they’re deemed unfit for use.

What Happens to Old Electric Car Batteries

Batteries are like the engines of an electric car. They are the primary source of energy to electric cars.

They don’t produce energy, instead, they store it in their batteries to power the motors. Therefore, a lot of research and development of an electric vehicle is focused on battery technology.

In this article, I will be going through everything about electric car batteries. Staring from the technology to the end of their life cycles. 

In Cars, the two most popular battery technologies are:  

  • Lithium-Ion
  • Lead-Acid

Lithium-Ion Batteries 

What Happens to Old Electric Car Batteries

Lithium-ion batteries are used in almost all portable consumer electronics like laptops and phones because of their high energy density. They can store higher capacities per unit mass compared to other battery technologies. Other advantages include high energy efficiency, good high-temperature performance and low self-discharge. These qualities make them the best fit for portable electronics and electric vehicles. Lithium-ion batteries help vehicle manufacturers save on space because of their high energy density. 

Lithium-ion batteries are also safer than most battery technologies. But they can be harmful or cause explosions or fires when put under a lot of pressure, but they are safer than other technologies. This combined with manufacturers pushing for safety first helps to protect customers. 

Lithium-ion batteries are costlier than other battery technologies. But with most Electric vehicles and Hybrid vehicles sporting them, they are constantly researched upon. They are the best-fit for electric vehicles. Research and development are focused on reducing their high cost, life cycle, capacity and better safety measures. They will be the primary technology for batteries in electric cars and so I will be focusing more on them below. 

Lead-Acid Batteries 

What Happens to Old Electric Car Batteries

These are some of the commonly found batteries in vehicles but certain disadvantages make them not suitable for current EV technology. They are found in gasoline cars and older electric cars. Lead-acid batteries are designed to have high power, cheap, and safe. But they fall short because of low specific energy and poor cold-temperature performance. They also have a short life cycle and this calls for frequent replacing. Advanced versions of these batteries are being developed to be used in vehicles but only to provide support power. Lead-acid batteries are not so popular in the electric vehicle segment anymore so I won’t be focusing on this technology anymore. 

What’s the Impact of Electric Car Batteries on the Environment?

What Happens to Old Electric Car Batteries

Batteries like any commodity have their own carbon footprint and cause their own fair share of troubles for the environment.

  • Batteries found in electric cars, that is lithium-ion batteries are hard to manufacture. They use rare earth metals, like lithium and cobalt. Extracting these metals are hard and, in the process, use a lot of energy and cause a lot of emissions. And this can cause a significant impact on the environment.
  • These batteries are a reason why electric cars have a higher footprint than gasoline cars during production.  While they do have their negative impacts on the environment, it is the versatility of Lithium-ion car batteries that make them the present and the future of electric vehicles.
  • The impact on the environment can be reduced because of their re-usability. After their life powering cars, these batteries can be used in factories and homes by feeding them into the energy cycle. 
  • Repurposing lithium-ion batteries can create a closed-loop for the birth and eventual recycling of the batteries. This means that the battery manufacturers can use the batteries again to generate power for the factory. This helps in waste and reduces environmental impact compared to throwing away the batteries or not being able to recycle them.   

Large car manufacturers are already creative in the repurposing of lithium-ion batteries and have plans for them.

  • Nissan wants to provide backup power to the Amsterdam ArenA (home to Ajax Football club) by using retired electric car batteries.
  • Toyota plans to install retired batteries outside convenience stores in Japan. These batteries will store electricity from solar panels and will power fridges and other appliances inside the store.
  • Renault will use the batteries from the Renault Zoe EV in a home energy battery storage system called the Power-vault. 

The Life of Electric Car Batteries

What Happens to Old Electric Car Batteries

Rechargeable batteries undergo cycles of discharge and charge, and this is true for electric vehicles too. Batteries in electric cars discharge when they run and charge when they are plugged in. This process affects the amount of charge that can be held by a battery. And this leads to a reduction of range and time taken to charge.

  • Manufacturers offer 5-10 years of warranty but batteries can last for 10-20 years before they need for replacement arises.  
  • Manufactures offer 8-year warranties or 1,00,000-1,50,000 miles for their batteries, Nissan and Tesla offer such warranties. This when compared to other lithium-ion batteries, it is baffling for me.
  • Phones and laptops use the same battery technology but they start to considerably lose their capacity in a couple of years. Phones and laptop batteries can have a couple of hundred charge cycles before starting to lose their capacity. This is because phones are deemed as products that are used for a few years at max. And phones aren’t the major cause of all the debate around global warming.
  • EV manufacturers have to design batteries that can last for thousands of miles. Most of the innovation in the EV industry goes to the battery because they are the engine of an EV.

The better the battery, the better the use case and purpose of electric vehicles. Poor battery technology can only cause more harm to the environment. Clever design technologies in the battery help them to achieve longer, more sustained battery life in an electric vehicle. 

Disposal of Electric Car Batteries

What happens when they are fully dead like when these batteries can’t hold a charge anymore? Instead of reusing, these batteries are either disposed or sent for recycling. Batteries use chemicals that are toxic and hazardous to the environment and all kinds of lifeforms. So this requires them to be disposed of safely. 

If batteries are not disposed of properly, they can cause extreme cases of air and water pollution. They are extremely hazardous and poisonous to life forms. The chemicals can cause widespread damage if not disposed of carefully.

All battery technologies are harmful and toxic if not disposed of safely, including the ones in electric cars. But manufacturers are working towards battery life cycle management to solve the expensive and toxic disposal of batteries. These include reuse of batteries and recycling them. 

Reuse/Recycling 

What Happens to Old Electric Car Batteries

The lithium-ion batteries found in Electric cars are versatile and give many years of use. So, once they are removed (retired) from cars because they are not as efficient, they are deemed to be dead. They still have life left in them; they just lose their ability to provide a decent driving experience.

  • These retired batteries are used to power homes, offices or factories in a larger battery system. In here, the batteries store electricity that can be used later when needed.  
  • If your home is powered by renewable energy sources like solar or wind, you can use the electricity generated to be stored in these retired batteries. This can help in reducing bills and can be better for the environment too. These batteries are used in industries like hospitals too to power electrical components. 
  • Batteries when they are fully dead without any re-usability, they are either disposed of or recycled. During recycling, separation of materials takes place. Materials like Cobalt, lithium salts, aluminum, copper and steel are separated.
  • The recycling process now only yields half the materials. But manufacturers are working on this and want to improve the recycling yield. 

Volkswagen is leading the charge as it announced a plant for battery recycling that target to recycle 97% of the battery components. The batteries are shredded, dried and sieved to recover as much material as possible. These materials will help in the manufacturing of batteries.   

Conclusion 

Electric cars are here to stay and so are their batteries. The only change I can see in the future is them getting better.

Batteries will always be harmful, and there will always be a negative impact on the environment. All we can do is to reduce this impact by innovating in these technologies. Manufacturers are working towards them.

With better technology, they will be cheaper, more efficient and have longer life cycles. With innovative reuse and recycling programs, the environmental impact of batteries will reduce.

The future looks good for electric vehicle batteries and the industry is moving in the right direction.  

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