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How long does an electric car battery last? What happens to a lithium-ion battery at the end of its lifecycle? Is its disposal done? Or is it recycled?

Transportation has a very significant impact on the environment. The negative effects of the increasing rate of air pollution, especially in urban areas have caused a lot of deterioration to the environment.

Today the urgency to restore the environment is receiving high levels of attention. Research and studies are being conducted on a global scale and it’s concluded that net-zero emissions by 2050 is a starting point in this giant race.

Electric vehicles are a very important solution to the challenges since electric mobility was found to be a greener and more efficient eco-friendly solution compared to vehicles with fossil fuels and older energy sources.

How Long Do Electric Car Batteries Last For? Are they recycled?

Electric cars have lithium-ion batteries which are estimated to have a lifespan of 15-20 years. That would mean tens of hundreds of charging and discharging cycles! When would a battery be too worn out for use in a functioning vehicle?

Gains, a researcher at the Argonne National Laboratory suggests that most batteries are either sent to the landfills or stockpiled and stored. Now, these are not the best options for disposal. The first option can contaminate the surrounding soil and underwater, the second is criticized as it can cause fires. There are still ongoing studies as to how these batteries can be stored or disposed safely.

The Desired Lifecycle Of An Electric Car Battery

In many studies conducted, the highest priority has been waste management and recycling options. Batteries should be designed in such a way that they use as few critical materials as possible. They should be re-used, which means that they should have a second use before they are recycled- where the materials should be recovered as much as possible and the structural value and quality of the battery should be preserved.

Where Can Electric Car Batteries Be Re-Used Before Being Recycled?

The market for electric-vehicle batteries has been growing in demand. However, there is slow and uncertain growth and the reasons for it are simultaneously simple and complex. Repurposing batteries in order to re-use them for a different purpose such as charging stations or stationary energy storage(like factories, residential buildings, hospitals, etc) is the logical exit for a battery that leaves an electric vehicle. The only issue is, this process is not as simple as taking a battery from one site or product to another.

Before the batteries are sent to be reused, its packs, modules, and cells need to be assessed on following parameters:

● How long can they hold a charge and how are they charged at the moment? The first part is important to determine if the battery is worth being re-used.

● The next step would be assessing how much energy is stored for safety (or even economic) concerns for the recycling processes?

In either case, repurposing or recycling, what follows is quite challenging

Dismantling Batteries: Manual, Dangerous And Expensive Process

After the assessment stage, the next step is to dismantle by hand, and here is where things get hard.

● The battery’s heavyweight and high voltages of tractions, specialised insulation tools are needed along with highly qualified mechanics to operate them (which are rare to find)

● Cost for manpower is high in some countries and this might not work in the overall economical calculation.

Due to these issues, another option suggested is automating the whole process to improve the mechanical separation of materials and components, enhancing the purity of the segregation process makes the whole recycling process more efficient. This could give birth to a whole new ancillary industry for electric batteries!

The Last Challenge - Recycling

Recycling - this should become a common practice for all lithium-ion batteries. This helps in avoiding harmful pollution in landfills (where they are currently being stored) and the possibility of explosions.

As soon as the batteries reach the recycling facilities, the materials like nickel, cobalt, manganese, or copper are sorted out via the heating and shredding process followed by others like ferromagnetism or hydrophobicity.

These batteries as we’ve seen have many limitations which create a gap between how batteries should ideally be dealt with and what happens to them in reality. One of the crucial methods to secure the materials such as cobalt or lithium is by keeping them away from landfills but dismantling them remains a dangerous and expensive job, especially when done by hand. In the future, as electric mobility grows, so will the research and experiments on how to overcome these challenges. The growth of electric mobility is in some ways linked to how we could keep electric vehicle batteries in a circular loop and away from landfills thereby ensuring a certain level of sustainability.

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