The ReCell Center, the U.S. Department of Energy’s $15 million lithium-ion battery recycling center at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, is focused on perfecting the methods for recycling the components of the batteries so it will be more profitable to run recycling centers in the U.S.
ReCell is “going after the technology that isn’t being researched because it is challenging and there is a lot of risk involved. We are trying to find the tech to make it economically desirable,” Jeff Spangenberger, director of the ReCell Center, said. “ReCell is trying to reduce cost liabilities for recyclers.
“We relied, not so much anymore, on others for oil and now we rely on other countries for batteries or battery materials,” Spangenberger said. “We don’t want that. Recycling allows us to to keep those materials in the U.S. and then make new batteries with the new materials. That is a benefit to national security.”
And when a method is perfected to make money instead of losing money on the recycling of the batteries, then the new batteries will sell for less, lowering the total cost for new EVs, Spangenberger said. It takes a lot of energy to extract virgin materials to make batteries out of previously unused lithium and cobalt, so perfecting the recycling process will also lower the overall environmental impact of producing the electric vehicle. That’s because the manufacturing of the vehicle is the most carbon expensive part of the vehicle’s life, as long as it is being charged on a grid that doesn’t use coal to generate energy.
A 2018 report prepared by the International Council on Clean Transportation, a nonprofit that conducts research for environmental regulators, compared the life cycle emissions of conventional European cars to European electric vehicles. “Electric vehicle manufacturing requires more energy and produces more emissions than manufacturing a conventional car because of the electric vehicles’ batteries. Lithium-ion battery production requires extracting and refining rare earth metals, and is energy intensive because of the high heat and sterile conditions involved. Most lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles in Europe in 2016 were produced in Japan and South Korea, where approximately 25 percent to 40 percent of electricity generation is from coal,” the report states.
Manufacturing an electric vehicle accounts for about half of the vehicle’s lifetime emissions and about half of those manufacturing emissions are generated by the battery production. About half of the battery manufacturing emissions are from material production, according to the report. “Materials production is responsible for approximately half of the greenhouse gas emissions from battery production, and recycled materials typically have a lower carbon footprint than the same materials from virgin sources,” the report states. So if more of the manufacturing materials are made with recycled materials, the impact on the environment to make electric vehicles would likely decrease.