Lithium-ion batteries, used to power electric vehicles and store renewable electricity, are a major component of the clean energy economy. Recycling could ease the looming squeeze on materials to meet burgeoning demand for these technologies — especially as a Biden administration tries to get the U.S. to meet the pollution-reduction goals agreed in the Paris climate accord.
“Battery recycling doesn’t just remove hazardous waste from our environment; it also strengthens domestic manufacturing by putting used materials back into the supply chain,” DOE Secretary Jennifer Granholm said in an Aug. 29 release.
All told, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act invests more than $7 billion over five years to build a domestic battery supply chain. This includes $335 million for lithium-ion battery recycling projects. DOE issued a request for information to help guide its implementation of these recycling programs and plans to accept public comments by October 14.
These plans should be aimed at improving the collection process at the end of battery life and extracting valuable materials from it. The programs also aim to minimize the environmental risks of throwing away and reprocessing used batteries, while also making battery recycling more popular and creating a new workforce for the recycling industry.
The funds will also be used to find a useful second life for old EV batteries. An EV battery can be replaced once it loses about 20 percent of its capacity. But that means it could have up to 80% of its capacity available for other uses. For example, pairing batteries with solar panels to retain excess energy absorbed during the day can provide clean power at night. Some car companies, including Nissan, are studying how to reuse electric vehicle batteries to store renewable energy for the grid.
Meanwhile, policymakers are scrambling to figure out how countries can have enough batteries on hand to meet their climate goals. To reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Biden wants the power sector to be completely carbon-free by 2035 — nearly impossible without more battery storage. Biden also issued an executive order last year that required half of all new vehicle sales in the U.S. to be hybrid or electric by the end of the decade. California, one of the world’s largest auto markets, last week instituted new rules — phasing out gas-guzzling cars in favor of plug-in hybrids and battery-electric vehicles by 2035.
Similar transitions need to happen around the world to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, such as more severe storms, droughts and heat waves. Greenhouse gas pollution will need to fall to net zero around 2050 to meet the goals set out in the Paris climate agreement, thereby ensuring a more livable future. But meeting these targets will require five times more production of key minerals in 2040 than in 2021, according to an analysis by the International Energy Agency.
And that has raised another conundrum – how to satisfy the growing thirst for battery materials without damaging the environment and communities near mines. Mining of materials such as nickel and cobalt used in batteries has historically been concentrated in a few regions, making markets for these materials vulnerable to labor and environmental abuses and supply chain shocks.
To reduce America’s reliance on minerals mined in these areas, the DOE last year released a “national blueprint” for making lithium-ion batteries. The Biden administration invoked the Defense Production Act in March to enhance mining and processing materials within the United States. But the push for domestic mining has environmental groups and Native American tribes concerned about the damage domestically.
If the U.S. prioritizes recycling batteries rather than relying heavily on extracting brand-new materials, it could help reduce many of these problems.