Electric Cars – The Material Issue

25 November 2020

How do you recycle batteries?

The Challenge

In the rush to adopt Electric Cars it must not be forgotten that they still pollute even if the energy used to build them and the electricity they use in operation is from sustainable sources. Batteries are a major issue in that they depend on rare materials which are often mined in highly dubious circumstances.

By 2025, it’s predicted that electric and hybrid cars will account for 90 per cent of the lithium-ion battery market. That is mountain of batteries that will need disposing of. In the race to switch from fossil fuels to electric vehicles, a new challenge is emerging: what do you do with millions of spent batteries? 

As the world prepares to move to sustainable transportation over the next few decades, batteries will remain a barrier due to cost and material issues – though if they can effectively be recycled at high rates, it will have an exponentially-positive impact on the transition to sustainability in vehicles

Tesla Aims

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has stated that the company is looking to recycle more batteries in order to supplement raw materials used to make the batteries. With efficient battery recycling, Tesla could improve its production efficiency substantially, minimising reliance on mining efforts around the world, and the generation of raw materials to build its batteries from scratch.

The problem is attracting innovation

Two companies Redwood Materials in the USA and Northvolt in Sweden both run by ex-Tesla executives are working on this issue.

The mining and refinement of raw materials is estimated to contribute 30 per cent of a battery’s greenhouse gas emissions. Both Redwood and Northvolt aim to retrieve those raw materials from a spent battery and reuse them for a new battery. Such a breakthrough, if it can be scaled, would be huge in tackling the climate crisis. Redwood have had a operational facility since the summer and is already producing sample cells.


Northvolt is designing an automated dismantling system. This will not only speed up the process, but also make it safer. 

A car battery is a complex unit as within its box it contains 100's of individual cells, made up into modules, cooling and heating circuits (like humans batteries don't like extremes of temperature), contol and monitoring circuits, control module and terminals for charge and discharge.

The big obstacle for machines to overcome is battery design: no two are the same, forcing recycling facilities to craft different plans for different car batteries.  

After the battery has been safely dismantled and the cells and modules retrieved, Northvolt begins to crush those cells in an air-tight vacuum, ensuring that there are no reactive gases like carbon dioxide and oxygen around to contaminate the materials in the cells. The liquid electrolyte is evaporated and condensed, finding use elsewhere in the chemical process.

The crushed material is then sorted based on various properties. Picture a massive sieve collecting the larger materials and separating them from the smaller ones, while a magnet separates magnetic and non-magnetic metals. All of this is then delivered to nearby recycling facilities.

As soon as all the crushed material has been sorted and separated based on density, magneticity and size, all that remains is a pile of black powder. The powder is made up of nickel, manganese, cobalt, lithium hydroxide and graphite – some of the most crucial components in a lithium-ion battery. This powder undergoes something called a hydrometallurgical process, where the black powder is effectively dumped into an acid bath. All those raw materials will be separated from the black powder, leaving behind all the ingredients needed to make a new electric car battery.

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