The future of the automobile is electric. Yet the surge in electric vehicles raises critical concerns regarding battery creation, disposal and recycling. What will happen once all those cars reach the end of the road? In this episode of Solve for X, we address the environmental footprint of EV batteries, confront the challenges posed by the existing regulatory landscape and highlight opportunities for second-life applications. It turns out that batteries are capable of more than you might expect, and can teach us a lot about how to design for the future.
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Subscribe to Solve for X: Innovations to Change the World here. And below find a transcript to the third episode: “The electric afterlife: What are we going to do with all those EV batteries?”
Narration: The future of the automobile is electric.
In just four years, one in five new cars sold at a local dealer will have to be zero emission.
Narration: The federal government has mandated that by 2035, all new cars and trucks sold in Canada must be zero emission.
We’re moving forward with specific targets of 60 percent by 2030 and 100 percent by 2035.
Narration: And it’s not just Canada. Across the world, governments and manufacturers are moving away from the combustion engine.
If we want to respond to climate change, we have to use cars that don’t pollute or emit carbon.
Narration: So as we gear up for an electrified future, there’s a new challenge to consider. The number of EVs expected to be on and off our roads could leave us with millions of burnt out batteries in the years ahead. So it raises a critical question: what are we going to do with all those car batteries?
I’m Manjula Selvarajah, and this is Solve for X, Innovations to Change the World, a series where we explore the latest ideas in tech and science.
It’s clear that EVs are a key part of the strategy to help us decarbonize — as not just cars — it’s also bikes, buses, all kinds of transportation. But building the batteries that power electric motors comes with environmental costs, and there’s also the human impact.
Looking ahead, the question of where these batteries will end up once they retire from the road — and what happens to the lithium and other metals inside — is becoming increasingly important. Earlier this year, I called a few local dealerships to try to learn more.
Manjula Selvarajah: “Hi there, my name’s Manjula, I’m a journalist working on a documentary about battery recycling. Really, what I’m trying to get an understanding of is… What happens to an electric car when it dies?”
“So it’s Manjula again. I have a question about what happens when…”
Basically, he hung up on me.
Narration: When you go to buy a new car, it’s clear who to turn to, but when it comes to who’s responsible for what’s powering it, especially after the warranty or power runs out, that’s where things get a bit murkier. I decided to take my question further afield to someone whose job it is to deal with EVs once they’ve run their course.
Andy Latham: Andy Latham, and I’m CEO and founder of Salvage Wire.
Narration: Andy travels all around the world from Brazil to Jamaica to India, training technicians and salvagers on how to safely handle and dismantle EVs.
Andy Latham: I’m based in the UK right now. I’m in Massachusetts. Two weeks ago, I was in Indonesia.
Narration: And though it’s not technically part of his job description, Andy’s made it his business to help raise awareness about what happens to old EV batteries.
Manjula Selvarajah: So, I had a very interesting experience a couple of weeks ago, and I placed a bunch of calls to dealerships, junk shops just to get an answer on — I have an EV — if it’s at the end of its life, what happens to it? And I couldn’t get a straight answer. Why is it so nebulous?
Andy Latham: It’s still something new. It’s still something that we don’t yet fully understand. We’ve had 120 years of gasoline and diesel. We understand, we know that. We’ve had 10 years of lithium and we’re still learning. We’re still developing that.
Narration: So when Andy opens up a car to remove a battery, it could be because it got in a crash, or it’s simply at the end of its life, he starts by asking himself a few questions.
Andy Latham: You’ve got four things to really look at when you’re dealing with one of these. Number one, can you reuse the battery? Number two is then, can you remanufacture it? Then it could be repurposed. So if it’s not suitable for automotive — but it can very happily go into static storage — in wind farms, in solar farms, solar PV array on your house or something like that. And then the fourth one, is recycle.
Manjula Selvarajah: I don’t think most people have seen an EV battery. Can you describe it to us?
Andy Latham: If I’ve got a full electric vehicle — say a Tesla — then that battery is in a big case that sits underneath the vehicle, and that’s about 600 kilos in weight. That’s about eight of me.
Manjula Selvarajah: Wow. Yeah, these things are incredibly heavy.
Narration: Whether a battery gets reused in another car, turned into standalone energy storage, or recycled, is an important consideration. I asked Andy what he’d like to see happen.
Andy Latham: It would be that complete circular economy.
Manjula Selvarajah: What would that look like? Paint me a picture of that.
Andy Latham: At the moment we’ve got a linear economy. It doesn’t matter whether it’s vehicles that are internal combustion engine or EV — it doesn’t matter. We’re building the vehicles, they’re being used, and then they’re going to be recycled. But it’s not going back into building new vehicles. And that’s what you want, you want that circular economy where you’re building new vehicles, it goes through production, goes through life, gets to end of life, and it’s a big circle. And most of that stuff that comes out of end of life goes back into building new and building new vehicles.
Narration: These are big decisions for the industry. The supply chain for batteries is complex and is subject to global market forces.
Andy Latham: Vehicle manufacturers and battery producers want to be as clean as possible. And by reusing that product, they’re not then going out to Australia or China or somewhere else for the virgin minerals. So then they’re not reliant on something coming from another country.
Narration: To meet the demand for new electric cars and trucks over the coming decade, it’s estimated that more than 300 new mines will need to be opened up around the world. Lithium production alone would need to ramp up 40 fold.
Andy Latham: Whereas if you take those batteries out and put them through a recycling process — 70, 80, 90 percent of what’s gone in to make that battery in the first place can now be reused to make another battery.
Narration: Close to half of the greenhouse gas emissions created in building a battery come from the production of the raw materials. That’s sparking an interest in recycling along the lines of Andy’s vision of a circular economy. Instead of digging for more lithium, cobalt and other resources, the old batteries themselves could be shredded and then processed to make new ones.
Jessica Dunn: I’m Jessica Dunn. I’m a senior analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Narration: Jessica is a researcher in material circularity from Bellingham, Washington — about 30 minutes from the Canadian border.
Jessica Dunn: I focus specifically on battery mineral circularity, battery recycling and repurposing.
Narration: She works for the Union of Concerned Scientists. It’s a non profit that uses independent science to advocate for better climate policy.
Jessica Dunn: Yeah, I mean, we can make EVs more sustainable. We can recover a lot of the materials.
Narration: A big part of Jessica’s work is to look at ways to reduce the environmental impact of EVs. That could be anything from shifting away from our over reliance on cars, to changing how batteries are designed in the first place.
Jessica Dunn: So a lot of my research is diving into the impacts of electric vehicles. I’ve done life-cycle assessments that really just assess the impacts of the mining, of the manufacturing, of the processing, carbon emissions, the water impacts. And the intention behind doing that research — and the intention, I think, by a lot of scientists — is so that we can make the transportation sector more equitable as we transition to an electrified future.
Narration: EVs do require a significant amount of minerals and energy to manufacture. But Jessica and her team found that if you take an average new electric car and look over the course of its lifetime, it ends up contributing less. Roughly half the pollution when compared to one powered by fossil fuels.
Jessica Dunn: Right now, the fossil fuel industry is creating a plethora of harms. We’re holding electric vehicles to a lot higher standard. And so, when we’re pointing out those impacts, it’s not that we’re saying: Don’t electrify and don’t use electric vehicles. We’re saying: Let’s look at solutions to make sure that we can make this the most low-impact, the most sustainable, system possible — from the mining to the processing to the actual use of the vehicles.
Narration: One technique that’s showing promise is called hydrometallurgy, or what some people are calling urban mining. It’s where you use chemicals to leach the metals out. It’s considered less energy intensive to other processes because it doesn’t require burning or smelting the components.
Jessica Dunn: Hydrometallurgy is a technology that’s been used processing mined materials for a long time. The use in lithium ion batteries in recycling is pretty new — it’s developing at a faster rate and it’s becoming more popular — and I think that has a lot to do with the economics.
Narration: In the U. S. alone, the transition to electric cars could require three times as much lithium as is currently produced globally. In Jessica’s words, EVs can take us to a cleaner future, but we need to steer them to get there.
Jessica Dunn: We can be able to have 50 percent recycled content in 2050, which means 50 percent of the minerals are coming from our economy and aren’t mined, which means less impacts and less emissions.
Narration: If you look back at the history of technology, it’s nearly impossible to foresee all the ripples of innovation that a new discovery can unleash. Silly Putty, for instance, was actually the product of a failed effort to create synthetic rubber during the Second World War. But when the owner of a toy store came across it, she realized kids would go wild for it.
Or take lithium itself — from the time it was discovered in 1817, the element was viewed as a bit of a loose cannon — it’s unstable and it’s prone to catching on fire. But in the early 1980s, we began to figure out how to reframe that volatility as a kind of potential. So that question of what to do with EV batteries, maybe we should reframe how we think about batteries in the first place. What if we could find a way to make them do more?
Andy Latham: We’re finding with these vehicles that the batteries are lasting the lifetime of the vehicle. So the recycling element of it is actually further and further and further down the line. And by the time they get to that in 20 years time, our technologies will have advanced so much, we’ll be able to recover 99 percent of that battery for reuse into something else.
Narration: To many of us, the idea that these batteries could get repurposed might seem strange. If it can’t run a car, how is it supposed to provide power in a second life? But once you get down to nuts and bolts, as Andy was explaining, researchers are finding that even a drained car battery holds a lot more potential.
Andy Latham: So they could do 12, 15, 18 years in a vehicle — and then do another 15, 20, 30 years of static storage.
Narration: According to a report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, even at the end of an EV’s life, the battery inside can retain up to 70 percent of its capacity. Turns out that’s plenty of juice left for other second life applications like running backup energy storage… or even powering a scuba resort.
Claus Eckbo: At any given time, there’s probably a humpback going by to… entertain.
My name’s Claus Eckbo and I’m at God’s Pocket Resort in British Columbia.
Narration: I spoke to Claus on the phone. It was about lunchtime at his off-grid scuba resort.
Manjula Selvarajah: So those batteries that you have now — do you ever wonder what they did before? Where they spent their first life?
Claus Eckbo: Yeah, they actually came out of Mercedes cars. I don’t know exactly what those cars were doing or which cars they were, but I know they were on the road at some point.
Narration: Because God’s Pocket is in such a remote area, they’re not connected to a conventional electrical grid. The resort relies on generators for its power. And when it came time to get the batteries, Claus explained they actually had to helicopter them in.
Claus Eckbo: To see them actually power everything at the lodge was… it was such an amazing feeling.
Manjula Selvarajah: How much less is it — how long are you running the generators now that you have that second life battery?
Claus Eckbo: Yeah, now we can charge up batteries in as little as two hours, essentially.
Manjula Selvarajah: So you’ve gone from, is it 10 to 14 hours, of a diesel generator, to two hours?
Claus Eckbo: Yes, pretty incredible.
Narration: When Claus says pretty incredible, it’s not just the reduction in time or noise. Running the generator for less time adds up to fewer emissions. But how does a battery go from, say, a parking lot to powering a scuba resort? First, you’d need someone like Andy to harvest the battery — to get it safely out of the chassis of the car. But before it can begin its new life, it needs to get tested and redesigned. That’s Edward Chang’s specialty; he’s the CEO of Moment Energy.
Edward Chiang: So what we do is we work directly with the automakers. We don’t buy batteries from auto wreckers or eBay, for example.
Narration: Edward’s company provides energy storage systems, like the one used in God’s Pocket. They do this by repurposing used EV batteries.
Edward Chiang: So what we’ve been focused on are off-grid residential. And then now what we’re doing is, working with on grid. So Ottawa Hydro — we’re doing a project with them for neighborhoods — to help de-stress the grid when everybody’s at home at 6 p.m. charging their vehicles — all the way to airports.
Narration: Edward and his co-founders first had the idea while working on a project about electric race cars. They found themselves wondering whether used EV batteries might address another problem.
Edward Chiang: We’ve all kind of heard throughout the years that it’s a very old grid, and they need technologists to help supplement huge amount of power demand that EV charging puts on the grid, that manufacturing buildings put on the grid, that even downtown commercial towers put on the grid.
Narration: By repurposing batteries, they can almost double their lifespan. But one of the challenges is how batteries are designed to begin with. Edward explained that depending on the way batteries are glued or attached together in a car, can make a big difference. Like whether it’s too time consuming or even too dangerous to consider taking it apart.
Edward Chiang: North America, unfortunately, has been really been looking at more of a reactionary methodology compared to other automakers from other regions where they’ve been planning more on the long term on what happens at end of life.
Manjula Selvarajah: Is policy, is regulatory action, what’s needed to — kind of — force the issue you think?
Edward Chiang: We have found that policy typically lags, which is why we’ve been working with many, many different automakers who’ve reached out to us as experts in the space, to determine what the end of life solution is and what’s the best way to design their vehicles now, for good end of life. We don’t actually blame automakers — thinking all the way 20 years or 30 years on what happens with their vehicle — mainly because, you know, EVs have been growing at an extremely rapid pace, everybody’s playing catch up here. It’s going to take a village; we’re all going to need to work together to determine what is the right path for end of life, which is why again, at Moment, we believe that it’s going to take a village to really solve this climate crisis.
Narration: A market for second life batteries could help make the transition to electricity less resource intensive. But reports suggest that there isn’t yet a steady supply of batteries making their way to be recycled. As recycling plants ramp up, there could be competing interests for batteries at the end of a car’s life. Is it possible that we may overlook that crucial second life step in our rush to recycle? Here’s Jessica Dunn.
Jessica Dunn: You know, we really do want to encourage this repurposing. I think sometimes you need to think about policies that you can enact to kind of increase the economics of repurposing. So, disassembly can be such a burden and a cost, and there also might be a lot of uncertainty about what the state of health of the battery is. Any way to kind of speed up those two processes through policy levers and technology development can really just increase the affordability and the economics.
Narration: Jessica worked on recommendations to help advance regulation in California.
Jessica Dunn: Let’s see we started this California process in 2018, which means it’s taken five years to get to the point where we’re talking about policy to happen — and the policy is supposed to be implemented in four years. So the length of time that these policy making process happens is just… it’s long. And so I feel like we have to think of the problem now.
Narration: Right now, Canada is lagging behind China and the EU when it comes to policy for electric car batteries. One idea is to look to existing battery recycling programs. But according to a recent report, only 12 percent of single use batteries sold in Ontario got recycled last year. That’s a big drop from 47 percent in 2019. And while EV batteries are far removed from the kind you use in your TV remote, the challenges facing recycling programs show just how difficult it is to enforce what happens at the end of life. I asked Andy what he thinks will have to be in place to scale up the end of life industry.
Andy Latham: If I’m honest, what we found in Europe that has worked very, very well is legislation. Because if you put legislation in place, or you say that in five or eight or 10 years time we’re going to hit this standard — this is what we’re going to do — the investment will follow.
Manjula Selvarajah: And Andy, what is the legislation driving in particular? Like you talked about a standard. What is it asking for?
Andy Latham: It’s all around climate, climate change. It’s all around reusing natural resources rather than wasting them, because we’ve got a finite amount of natural resources. I mean, if I take end of life vehicles — the European Union started out 20 something, 22 years ago with this — and said initially 85 percent of every vehicle must be recycled. But they then had a target of 95 percent. Now what that meant was the vehicle manufacturers then had to design in the recyclability. So they had to change what they did. And there were certain products of certain things that they could not put into that vehicle. It started out with that, and then we’ve got extended producer responsibility on batteries.
Manjula Selvarajah: When you look at the state of things as they are now in North America with EV batteries, what do you think that should teach us about how we design the future?
Andy Latham: Design for recyclability. And this is not just EV batteries, this is everything. Whether it’s your smartphone, it’s your refrigerator, whatever, but design it to be recycled. Because we are throwing away way too much in the lifestyles that we have. And it is a mind shift. It’s a complete reset of your minds around how we do this. And now I’m not Greta Thunberg; I’m not somebody who is as passionate about the climate as she is. But I want to see a future for my grandchildren and their children. And we’ve got to start somewhere. And if we start somewhere, we start with our automotive, our transportation, how we live our lives.
Narration: When you think about the three Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle — two of them get short shrift, reduce and reuse. But in planning for a sustainable future, we will need to ramp up those approaches to better manage the resources we have. If we figure out how to do that and do it well, it could teach us a lot about how to rethink the design of not just car batteries, but everything we create. The hope is that the ripple effects of this innovation could spark more changes, changes that we can’t even imagine today.
Solve for X is brought to you by MaRS. This episode was produced by Ellen Payne Smith. Lara Torvi and Heather O’Brien are the associate producers. David Paterson and Sarah Liss are the senior editors. Mack Swain composed the theme song and all the music. Gab Harpelle is our mix engineer. Kathryn Hayward is the executive producer.
This episode includes clips about EV sales targets from CBC, Global News and France 24. I’m your host, Manjula Selvarajah. Watch your feed for new episodes coming soon.
MaRS helps entrepreneurs looking to scale solutions in climate tech, health and software. We offer targeted support through our Capital and Growth Acceleration programs. For more information, visit marsdd.com. And we want to hear from you — drop us a line to share your ideas, questions and feedback. Email us at [email protected].
Illustration by Workhouse