According to CarExpert, the sales of electric vehicles (EVs) in Australia has almost tripled in the first half of 2023 compared to the same period last year. Globally 1.2 million EVs were sold in August 2023 alone and the choice of vehicle models is ever increasing, which means there is going to be literally tonnes of used EV batteries that will need disposing of in the near future.
As car companies seek social license from the public, they are well aware that people are becoming more conscious of the ecology in the community and the promise of health benefits and climate impact with lower emissions, as well as the savings in petrol costs. Growing the national EV market is also at the heart of Australia’s first National Electric Vehicle Strategy, launched in 2023.
But the increased uptake has a downside. Research commissioned by the Battery Stewardship Council, released in June 2023, estimates used EV batteries entering the waste stream will reach 30,000 tonnes by 2030 and 1.6 million tonnes by 2050. This is a problem on many fronts – not only do most batteries have some environmentally unfriendly components, but as the use of lithium-ion batteries increases, they also become a fire hazard if incorrectly disposed to landfill.
Currently, with household discarding batteries in kerbside bins, an average of one fire a week at a MRF or in a collection vehicle occurs. When it comes to EV batteries and Solar Battery Energy Storage Systems (BESS), lithium-ion batteries’ high voltage and capacity brings added risk at their end-of-life, requiring special safety provisions, designated transport containers, thermal monitoring and fire response equipment.
To date, there are limited national recycling solutions providers for used EV batteries and large energy storage units. The Battery Stewardship Council is urging government and the EV and solar industries to advance discussions and be prepared for the emerging waste stream. Extended Producer Responsibility consultations are in progress and programs are looking at being established. The recycling industry is expected to make investments and build capacity for a circular economy to form part of Australia’s critical minerals policy.
E-waste recycler Ecocycle is moving ahead of the game, investing in equipment, technology, and training to collect and recycle used EV and BESS batteries. Zoltan Sekula, product stewardship manager for the company, said it is imperative to embrace the safest processes for transportation and recycling of even the current volumes of used EV battery and energy storage systems reaching their end-of-life.
“Ecocycle are leading from the front,” Sekula said. “We have made it our mission to be ready, with all the right equipment to deal with all battery chemistries and capacities.”
Sekula said, unfortunately Australia does not have an official recycling program or a code of practice when it comes to EV batteries or high voltage energy storage systems. He said special considerations are needed right through the supply chain and the time is now. There is a need for training programs for people wanting to work with high energy EV and BESS batteries in the recycling sector.
The main issue is the EV batteries’ high voltage, up to 800+ volts. Even at end-of-life, batteries may still have a significant charge capacity left.
“Not everyone can, or should, work with EV or energy storage batteries especially from a personal risk and potential property risk perspective,” Sekula said. “Anyone who believes they are just a simple battery assembly is mistaken. Units can deliver a dangerous direct current that could be fatal. Safety is paramount. EV and BESS batteries are classed dangerous goods with a risk of serious adverse events and possible fires if not processed by trained personnel with the right equipment and machinery for recycling.”
Ecocycle has undertaken its own staff training, following safety guidelines from the European EV battery recycling industry. The company has invested in remotely operated thermal monitoring Fire Rovers, which continuously scan for adverse thermal events and deploy fire extinguish chemicals directly to an early fire, before it can grow to any significance. Ecocycle also provides special safety containers for the transportation of whole EVs, end-of-life EV batteries and BESS. The specialist range of EV safety containers have in-built environmental monitoring equipment and contain proven fire-retardant materials. In the event of a thermal runaway, a potential fire will be self-contained. A national fleet of company-owned DG approved vehicles are available to respond to any enquiries for their deployment of EV whole vehicle safety containers, and individual EV battery safety transport boxes. Sekula said EV batteries in cars that are involved in an accident and sustain damage to their battery have the potential to ignite at site. This includes when in transit, or any time weeks after an accident, because energy cane remain in the battery pack. Ecocycle has the equipment and processes to ensure these vehicles can be transported safely and remain monitored for as long as required before dismantling and recycling.
“It has been documented that accident damaged EVs can catch fire while on a tow truck and create a second emergency,” Sekula said. “With our self-contained vehicle safety containers, this is controlled and dealt with safely. The on-board monitoring equipment will detect any heat build-up and respond appropriately to contain the impact of a potential thermal runaway or fire.”
A member of the Association for the Battery Recycling Industry (ABRI), Sekula advocates, “under an EV battery stewardship program Ecocycle will facilitate recycling of EVs and EV batteries to be transported safely and monitored in safe storage. We will process end-of life EV batteries and defuse any risk of adverse events by effectively returning the energy from EV batteries to the grid, before the recovery of resources, further increasing the benefits of EV battery recycling”.
The elements used to create EV batteries need to be preserved. This includes cobalt, nickel, manganese, and lithium. Recovering those materials to be reused in the manufacture of new batteries will be important in a circular economy where climate action can be impacted on positively through sophisticated recycling.
Sekula expects the EV battery recycling industry will supply at least 10 per cent of the demand for resources to build new batteries in the future. He said it is imperative EV and BESS battery recovery and recycling is formally supported with effective product stewardships. He also said Ecocycle has made a commitment to ensure EV and other large-scale batteries are collected, transported, stored, and recycled to a world-class standard with capacity to process the projected tonnes towards 2030 and beyond.