Feb 18, 2022 - Economy

The charge to keep EV batteries out of the trash

Illustration of three EV chargers forming a recycling symbol.

Illustration: Gabriella Turrisi/Axios

As electric vehicles grow in popularity, there's a related challenge on the horizon: how to dispose of worn-out EV batteries.

Why it matters: If the U.S. can salvage those end-of-life battery packs, it could reuse the critical minerals inside to make new batteries, creating a sustainable domestic supply chain.

  • That could help make EVs more affordable and prevent shortages like the current semiconductor crisis.

Driving the news: An ambitious startup called Redwood Materials has enlisted Ford Motor and Volvo Cars as partners on a pilot to figure out how to wrangle all those batteries in a safe, sustainable and cost-effective way.

  • The pilot will begin in California — America's EV capital — where Redwood will work with dealers and dismantlers to collect old batteries and then safely transport them to its Nevada facilities for processing.
  • While Ford and Volvo are helping to fund the pilot, Redwood will accept lithium-ion and nickel metal hydride batteries from any EVs and hybrids.

Where it stands: The U.S. is still a few years off from seeing large quantities of old batteries piling up, but the time to start preparing is now, says Redwood CEO J.B. Straubel, who was a co-founder of Tesla.

  • "I think we're going to see the numbers really, really pick up probably in two to three years, starting in California, simply because it is the oldest EV market," he told reporters Thursday.

Between the lines: Most EV batteries come with a warranty of eight years or more, but early evidence shows they tend to outlast those guarantees.

  • That has some carmakers even touting the emergence of a million-mile battery.
  • It's possible the vehicles could wear out before their batteries do — especially if they're used in taxi or delivery fleets, where they're driven more frequently.
  • On the other hand, many vehicles are now capable of over-the-air software updates, making them seem like new again and again — and potentially extending their ownership cycle.

Battery technology is changing rapidly, too. Early EVs like the Nissan Leaf had a battery range of less than 100 miles. Today's EVs can go at least 250 to 300 miles between charges — a potential incentive to trade up.

  • EV batteries that still have some usable life could even be repurposed for stationary energy storage.

Eventually, they'll all need to be recycled, however, and Redwood is already preparing to scale up its processing facilities, having raised $700 million last summer to fund expansion.

  • Today the company recycles 6 GWh of lithium-ion batteries from consumer electronics — the equivalent of 60,000 EVs — annually in North America.
  • "It's a bit of the Wild West right now," Straubel says of current EV battery recycling.
  • The goal is to turn those batteries into valuable assets to help fuel the shift to sustainable EV manufacturing.

State of play: Ford and Redwood Materials have already been laying the groundwork for a closed-loop battery supply chain.

  • The two companies will begin by salvaging scrap materials from Ford's planned joint venture battery factories with Korea's SK Innovation.
  • Redwood intends to build a battery recycling and processing facility on Ford's huge new manufacturing campus, Blue Oval City, coming to Tennessee.
  • "This new program with Redwood Materials will help Ford lead America’s transition to sustainable and carbon-neutral EV manufacturing and ultimately help make electric vehicles more sustainable and affordable for our customers," Ford CEO Jim Farley said in a statement.
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