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The electric car industry must figure out its battery problem

Electric transportation is one of the biggest keys to solving the impending climate crisis. With more electric vehicles on the road and fewer gas guzzlers, drivers burn less fossil fuels and put less global heating gases into the atmosphere. But as electric vehicles become more popular, they pose a new environmental challenge: what to do with their batteries when they are not on the road.

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Those batteries are starting to run into a problem, according to a new article published in the diary Nature today. We will inevitably have to recycle a lot of the batteries, but harvesting useful material from used lithium-ion batteries of electric vehicles remains annoying and risky. Fortunately there is still hope. The authors of the article say that institutional changes – such as designing batteries with recycling in mind and using robots to automate dismantling – could reform the recycling of batteries. In turn, those improvements can make electric vehicles even greener by using old batteries to deliver materials needed to build new ones.

In 2017, more than 1 million electric vehicles were sold worldwide. The authors of the study estimate that only these cars will ultimately result in 250,000 tonnes of discarded batteries. If they landed in landfills, they run the risk of undergoing a process that & # 39; thermal run-off & # 39; is called, which is actually a chemical reaction in the battery that can cause it to heat up, possibly to the point of burning or exploding. (This is why TSA prohibits replacement lithium-ion batteries in checked baggage when you board an aircraft.)

But exploding landfills are not the only reason to prevent old batteries from being dumped. They can even remain useful long after they have been removed from a vehicle. Just like your cell phone, the battery in an electric car cannot be charged for as long after a while. So drivers get a new battery or a new car. But the used battery can usually holds up to 80 percent of the power and discharges it when it was brand new. And that has led to something smart solutions for what to do with the batteries of the first fleets of electric vehicles that come on the market. This year, Toyota launched an initiative to connect old electric vehicle batteries to solar panels power for 7-Eleven stores in Japan. Because money can be made from reusing those batteries, finding second-use applications has surpassed recycling efforts.

“If you make it profitable, people do it. And at the moment there is no system, no infrastructure (for recycling batteries & # 39; s of electric vehicles) and so it is not clear how profitable a company will be ”, says Linda Gaines, co-author of the new newspaper and a system analyst at the Argonne National Laboratory, a research center managed by the University of Chicago and the US Department of Energy.

Gaines and her co-authors see a new opportunity to meet the demand for new car batteries with materials from the old ones. Lithium batteries for electric vehicles are made with cobalt, a mineral that is mined mainly in the Congo. But the growing demand for cobalt in the region has led to it allegations of child labor and other social and environmental consequences of mining. So for lead author of the study Gavin Harper, a researcher at the University of Birmingham, it would be more logical in some cases to recycle the batteries and reuse those valuable materials for new production instead of reusing the batteries. "Is it better to remove that cobalt from the battery and turn it into new batteries early on," he says.

To be able to recycle batteries on the scale that the growing market for electric vehicles requires, the industry must solve some important challenges. First of all, today's batteries are not designed for easy disassembly. Batteries are not all made in one standard way, which makes it difficult to disassemble them automatically. Much of the work must be done by hand by people who are sufficiently skilled to prevent themselves from hurting themselves. These things can explode. (If they do, they can also produce harmful gases.) And the types of sealants and adhesives used in batteries are extremely strong, making the work of employees more difficult.

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Robotic disassembly, the article explains, can solve the risks to humans and make the process fast enough to handle the future influx of batteries. But robots need more standardized batteries to reach their full potential. Those design changes can also be a victory for manufacturers looking for cheaper raw materials. Easier dismantling can lead to the extraction of purer – and therefore more valuable – materials from the batteries that can then be sold and / or used to produce new batteries.

"The idea of" design for recycling "is something that battery producers should have in mind," says Gaines. "Thoughts of this kind must be commonly used for product production."

The authors plan to start testing the solutions they have outlined, but assembly lines of robots that dismantle batteries are still off the line for years, with no deadline in sight.