Recycling EV Batteries Might Soon Become Booming Domestic Industry

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Having covered the White House’s incredibly expansive and costly infrastructure plan, specifically as it pertains to transitioning the entire nation toward alternative energy vehicles, we’ve often found ourselves asking questions. Puzzlers include wondering whether or not consumers actually want this change and how can we possibly expect to pay for this when we’ve already starting conjuring money out of thin air for other government programs. We don’t even know where we’re supposed to get the rare-earth minerals necessary for production when mining them is heavily regulated in the United States and hardly an endeavor that would be considered kind to the natural landscape.

Last week proved that we weren’t entirely alone in pondering how all of this greenification is supposed to work. 

On Friday, Reuters confirmed that numerous government agencies are pressing the Biden administration to do whatever it takes to procure the necessary materials for battery production. Though the existing plan relies almost entirely on shipping them in from other countries, which is detrimental in terms of air pollution and offshores what could have been domestic jobs. On the upside, all the disagreeable aspects of mining operations are left safely beyond our borders.

From Reuters:

As Biden makes fighting climate change and competing with China centerpieces of his agenda, the administration is set to wrap up a 100-day review on Friday of gaps in supply chains in key areas, including electric vehicles (EV).

These gaps include the minerals used in EV batteries and consumer electronics. The administration is also looking for ways to reduce metal usage in new battery chemistries.

Reports from various government agencies will be submitted to the White House, a process Biden ordered in an executive order earlier this year. Parts of the reports could be released publicly as soon as next week.

Democrats are pushing aggressive climate goals to have a majority of U.S.-manufactured cars be electric by 2030 and every car on the road to be electric by 2040.

Securing enough cobalt, lithium and other raw materials to make EV batteries is a major obstacle, with domestic mines facing extensive regulatory hurdles and environmental opposition.

We want electric cars because they’re supposed to be better for the environment but cannot mine the necessary materials because it would be bad for the environment. And our solution is to just ship everything across the ocean which (and feel free to correct me if I am wrong) is likely not going to be all that great for the environment.

Kind of a Catch-22 but some have posited that this could all be offset by domestic battery recycling. It’s something that the White House is reportedly been considering rather seriously.

“When you look at the way the U.S. has approached the recycling opportunity, what’s very evident is we need to invest in that capacity, we need to take a more proactive approach,” an administration official told Reuters. “A big part of the lithium opportunity is really recycling, and being a global leader in recycling the lithium from existing batteries and driving that into these new batteries.”

But the issue is that we don’t actually know for certain that mass battery recycling is actually more economical than simply digging new stuff out of the ground. Researchers at Aalto University have investigated the environmental effects of various recycling processes for electric car batteries, deciding that more R&D was ultimately needed before anything could be assumed. Hydrometallurgical recycling seems the way to go but there would still be an abundance of emissions and water usage that might not scale well when applied to a landscape where EVs are the norm. There are similar issues with battery disposal and increasingly more studies asserting that EVs need to be driven for extended periods of time to offset the pollution created by the construction and scrapping of their batteries.

Back in 2014, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a study examining EV pollution, attempting to account for every possible emission source from cradle to grave. While they could indeed outperform the average gas-powered automobile if driven until their batteries were basically incapable of holding a charge, EVs actually turned out to be worse for the environment when electricity was derived from energy grids that were heavily dependent upon coal.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory has been working hard to address these concerns and will likely see additional support from the current administration. It’s also assumed that America will see a domestic recycling push similar to what’s been implemented in the European Union.

If implemented correctly, it could save the country from seeing the full 8 million tons of battery scrap the U.S. government has estimated by 2040. It’s also supposed to keep us more competitive with China (which is ironically dependent upon coal-fired power plants). But it often seems that battery production and EVs benefit the Asian nation by default. China already dominates global battery production and has begun installing recycling facilities in other countries. Ganfeng Lithium Co. announced plans to build one in Mexico last fall.

Unfortunately, none of the data points to this being sufficient in transitioning toward an exclusively electric society. Under the most idyllic projections, recycling can only handle a fraction of the materials we’ll need for mass EV production. Without some kind of borderline miraculous efficiency breakthrough (hence the heavy emphasis on R&D), the world will need to multiply its mining operations several times over to ensure there’s sufficient cobalt, nickel, and lithium over the next couple of decades.

The Biden administration’s report is due on Friday. Perhaps we’ll get an answer or two before everything predictably degrades into a handout for various energy concerns and other preferred enterprises.

[Image: Sergii Chernov/Shutterstock]

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