Powering Clean Energy from Road to Home: The Role of Lithium-Ion Batteries

Lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) stand as the prevailing battery technology for electric vehicles (EVs) and high-demand applications, playing a pivotal role in fostering sustainable mobility and infrastructure. LIBs significantly enable the use of renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, to power various modes of transport and provide electricity to buildings and homes.

To overcome the challenges of material scarcity, waste disposal, and aging-related performance concerns, innovative strategies such as battery repurposing, recycling, and reuse have emerged to maximize the value of LIBs, extend their lifespan, and mitigate their environmental impact. These sustainable strategies lead us to a closed-loop ecosystem where resources that once powered EVs and EV infrastructure can sustainably power homes, offices, and grids.

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Lithium batteries: A circularity challenge overcome by necessity

LIBs are made of various materials, such as lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese, and graphite, extracted and processed from different parts of the world. The mining and processing of these materials have adverse environmental and social impacts, such as water pollution, land degradation, human rights crises, and geopolitical risks. For example, Cobalt, mainly sourced from the Democratic Republic of Congo, has been linked to child labor, armed conflicts, and health hazards for the artisanal or informal miners involved. Moreover, the demand for these materials is expected to increase exponentially as the deployment of LIBs grows, creating supply constraints and price volatility.

Driven to overcome these challenges to materialize the clean energy transition, the battery industry and policymakers worldwide have been exploring various strategies to reduce dependence on raw materials and improve the sustainability of LIBs. These strategies include battery repurposing, recycling, and reuse, guided by circular economy principles aiming to conserve natural resources and reduce the environmental footprint of battery manufacturing.

These strategies were previously bottlenecked by the efficiency of battery recycling processes, but with modern battery recycling and repurposing technologies, a circular ecosystem has been established that is actively propelling the world toward a fossil fuel-free economy.

Battery repurposing: A second life

Battery repurposing involves breathing new life into batteries that have completed their first cycle in EVs. Repurposed cells from these retired batteries find purpose in less demanding applications like stationary energy storage, backup power, or off-grid supply. For example, retired EV batteries are ideal to be repurposed to store excess solar or wind energy and provide electricity during peak hours or power outages.

Moreover, repurposed batteries can cost-effectively store and provide electricity to remote and rural areas, especially in developing countries, where access to the grid is limited or unreliable. Battery repurposing is not without challenges, including technical, economic, and regulatory barriers. For instance, testing and sorting the batteries according to their capacity and performance is a complex process that used to be costly not long ago. Compatibility and integration issues may arise when combining cell modules from batteries from different sources, manufacturers, and chemistries.

The benefits of repurposing, though, are substantial. Not only does it reduce the demand for new batteries, but it also provides additional grid capacity and backup, contributing to the stability and reliability of the mainstay electricity grid. According to a study featured on Deloitte, repurposing batteries could reduce the cost of stationary storage systems by 30 to 70 percent, depending on the application and the battery condition. Repurposing batteries also creates additional job opportunities, facilitates economic abundance, and minimizes the environmental impact associated with battery production and disposal.

This strategy can help create new markets and opportunities for battery products and services while reducing the demand for new batteries and raw materials. Battery reuse can also enhance the affordability and accessibility of clean energy technologies, especially for low-income and marginalized communities.

Battery recycling: Closing the loop

Fulfilling the necessity of raw material recovery from battery waste, battery recycling strives to collect and extract valuable materials from spent batteries. These materials can then be reused in the production of new batteries or other products, creating a closed loop of material flow. This is only possible because modern battery recycling technologies can regenerate raw materials with maximum purity, higher than even mine-processed raw materials. Battery recycling helps reduce dependence on imported materials, enhances supply security, and lowers greenhouse gas emissions and the total energy consumption of battery manufacturing.

To power more applications with the same materials from the road to home, the European Union has adopted the Battery Regulation, which sets targets for the collection and recycling of LIBs, along with minimum recycled content requirements for new batteries. Similarly, India's Battery Waste Management Rules also mandate Extended Producer Responsibility that requires Battery Asset owners to repurpose batteries along with recycling.

Several battery manufacturers and EV automakers have established partnerships with recycling companies to develop new energy storage solutions from used EV batteries.

Powering sustainability from road to home

By possessing the capability of being repurposed and recycled with high yield, LIBs contribute significantly to sustainable cities and transportation. They play a vital role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution from the transport sector, addressing that quarter of global CO2 emissions and combatting urban smog and health issues. LIBs enhance the integration of renewable energy sources like wind and solar, bridging their intermittency and augmenting the reliability of the electricity grid.

Technological advancements in smart grids, microgrids, vehicle-to-grid systems, and energy management align with sustainable development goals. LIBs, through their various applications, support the development of innovative technologies, circular business models, and services, creating value for both customers and stakeholders.