In an ideal world, each of those lithium-ion batteries stacked in the Oklahoma warehouse would be reused and recycled, ad infinitum, to create the lithium-ion batteries of 10, 25, even 50 years from now—with little new material required. Experts call this a “circular economy.” To make it work, recyclers are racing to come up with an efficient and planet-friendly way to reduce a used battery to its most valuable parts and then remake them into something new. Entrants include Redwood Materials, a Nevada firm led by former Tesla executives; Europe’s Northvolt; and Toronto-based Li-Cycle. Others plan to squeeze every possible electron from a battery before it’s recycled by offering second or third uses after it comes out of a car.
In theory, according to research done in the lab of Alissa Kendall, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Davis, recycled materials could supply more than half of the cobalt, lithium, and nickel in new batteries by 2040, even as EVs get more popular. The emerging EV industry needs a smart end-of-life process for batteries, alongside widespread charging stations, trained auto technicians, and a fortified power grid. It’s essential infrastructure, key to making our electrified future as green as possible. “We have to control these end-of-life batteries,” says Kendall. “It shouldn’t be a horror stream.”
One thing appears certain: The current way of dealing with cars past their prime won’t cut it. Cars are typically globe-trotters; the average vehicle may have three to four owners and cross international borders in its lifetime. When it finally dies, it falls into a globe-spanning network of auctioneers, dismantlers, and scrap yards that try to dispose of cars as profitably as possible. “These vehicles go to auction and anybody can grab them,” Kendall says. “That’s where the Wild West is.”