Between 2020 and 2021, electric vehicle (EV) sales increased by 50% to 6.6 million vehicles. By 2030, EVs could exceed 50% of total automotive sales in markets, backed by major markets’ internal combustion car phase-out regulations. As cars, trucks and buses are increasingly battery-powered and generate zero tail-pipe emissions, the increasing demand for road mobility can be met without compromising global warming and people’s health. But what happens when the battery that powers an electric vehicle is no longer fit for use? Are we resolving one challenge by creating the next big one?

The complex set of batteries in an electric car is made of materials including cobalt, copper, lithium and nickel – scarce metals whose mining carries harsh environmental and social costs. The bulk of a new battery’s carbon emissions stem from mining and refining processes, the societal impact of which is far from being resolved. Similarly, the disposal of batteries, classified by the Basel Convention as hazardous, can create further sustainability challenges and costs.

In order to electrify the mobility sector, batteries need to be collected, treated, reused and recycled effectively. By 2030, more than 1 million such batteries will need to go through this process in Europe alone. Recycled materials can cut about 40% of a battery’s carbon footprint, and address the bulk of an EV’s life cycle footprint. This has an enormous impact on electric vehicles, as half of the production emissions are embedded in the battery. However, three challenges stand in the way:

  1. Building capacities along the EV battery value chain
    Because each EV battery holds a pack of battery cells, analyzing its state is no simple task. Once batteries’ quality and depletion are assessed, the future of each one needs to be determined – not depending simply on a single company, but by overall market capacity to treat it as efficiently as possible. Batteries with some power left, for example, can be given a second life as power packs for mobile vehicle charging. Batteries that have little left to give can be ground down to a fine powder to extract raw materials such as lithium, nickel, manganese and lithium – and then re-enter the EV battery production cycle. Dedicated regional centres that could receive and safely store a wide variety of end-of-life batteries are only in their infancy.

Read more: 3 challenges en route to electric vehicle batteries driving the circular economy