The end of the road? Or not…

The end of the road? Or not…

October 8, 2019
Lloyd Fuller

With more and more lithium-ion batteries beginning to flood the market – and a predicted tsunami of electric vehicles on the horizon – the need for innovations to deal with these millions of end-of-life cells when they eventually retire has never been more urgent. To what extent could second-life applications prevent their critical raw materials from going to waste?

There is a school of thought that electric vehicles cannot legitimately be regarded as green, at least not throughout their entire life-cycle. The environmental impact of mining the raw materials within the batteries themselves is subject to continued scrutiny while, at their end of life, the benefits of low-emission EVs being on the road in the first place are potentially outweighed by the waste they generate when their batteries are no longer fit for their original purpose.

To recycle or not to recycle…?
Recycling, of course, remains an option – albeit one littered with challenges – as few countries aside from China and South Korea where the economies of scale make sense and EV production levels are high have seemingly mastered how to profitably recover the inherent valuable critical raw materials. Consequently, second-life applications have increasingly been researched and put into action as both battery makers and car manufacturers look to embrace more circular practices.

Second-life applications have increasingly been researched and put into action as both battery makers and car manufacturers look to embrace more circular practices

It comes as a surprise to some people that an EV battery that is considered past its prime for in-vehicle traction still retains between 70-80% of its original charging capacity, hence the view of Hans Eric Melin, Circular Energy Storage’s founder, that “a lithium-ion battery actually never dies”. And while not all car and battery makers have embraced the notion of a second life for EV batteries, many of them are – and these tend to be those that have been leading the push towards electrification for a number of years.

Life before death
The major second-life applications are naturally in energy storage, ranging from small residential systems to larger containerized grid-scale solutions, but there are nevertheless some novel models for these dearly departed Li-ion batteries that could generate additional revenue streams for car-makers, reduce costs in their day-to-day operations, enhance their overall sustainability agendas and ultimately keep much valued – and increasingly scarce – metals and minerals in the loop for longer, in some cases for another seven to 10 years. The reality is that as the metaphorical stockpile of partially used batteries is growing – and, forgive the pun, is set to explode – so manufacturers will be expected to have solutions in place that are both environmentally and economically sustainable.

The reality is that as the metaphorical stockpile of partially used batteries is growing – and, forgive the pun, is set to explode – so manufacturers will be expected to have solutions in place that are both environmentally and economically sustainable

Korean car-maker Hyundai is one such car-maker seeing a future for its end-of-life batteries in other applications, following the signature of a strategic partnership with Finnish energy technology company Wärtsilä in 2018 to use its spent cells for stationary energy storage systems. Such technologies are perhaps the most popular and sensible second-use candidate for EV batteries as they can encourage a switch to renewable energy. And the more renewable-energy sources used to generate electricity, the greener electric vehicles become. It’s all part of the overall greening of the virtuous supply chain. More recently, Hyundai signed an MoU with solar energy firm OCI to integrate its solution with OCI’s power stations in Korea and Texas, USA, in order to assess the feasibility of EV batteries in the energy storage sector.

Korea move 
Of course, the environmental case for energy storage systems is obvious. We can’t always rely on there being sufficient wind and sunlight so they help adjust for the intermittent nature of power sources such as solar and wind turbines by charging up with energy when it’s available, as well as discharging at a later time. Hyundai has already constructed a 1MWh test array using Ioniq Electric and Kia Soul EV batteries. The car-maker expects 29GWh of used electric-car batteries to be available by 2025, in contrast to the 10GWh of batteries currently available for the energy storage market, so the potential is significant.

Electrification has the potential to play an enormous role as we move toward decarbonization of many industries, but in order to maximize this potential, it’s crucial that we focus on the sustainability of the entire product life-cycle

Industrial revolution 
“Electrification has the potential to play an enormous role as we move toward decarbonization of many industries, but in order to maximize this potential, it’s crucial that we focus on the sustainability of the entire product life-cycle,” believes Julie Furber, vice president of electrified power at Cummins. The industrial engine manufacturer recently announced a multi-year partnership with the University of California (UC) San Diego to test viable business applications and technical approaches to re-use and re-purpose EV batteries.

Second-life applications are especially vital in the USA, as it depends on other countries for the critical materials used in the batteries themselves. In addition, lithium-ion batteries are collected and recycled at a rate of less than 5%, according to the US Department of Energy. For Cummins, which founded its electrified power business last year, the partnership will provide valuable data on the aging behaviors of its battery modules. “Battery module design is a crucial aspect to making second-life more feasible and this experience will be invaluable as we continue to develop solutions,” confirms Mike Ferry, director of Energy Storage and Systems at the Center for Energy Research, UC San Diego.

Factory fit for second life 
Audi has also been investigating its own concepts to utilize the spent batteries from its ‘e-tron’ test vehicles, including applications in the forklifts and tow tractors within its Ingolstadt production facility. “Every lithium-ion battery represents high energy consumption and valuable resources that must be used in the best possible way,” suggests Peter Kössler, board member of Audi, responsible for Production and Logistics. “For us, a sustainable electric-mobility strategy also includes a sensible second-use concept for energy carriers.” These factory workhorses have previously been powered by lead-acid batteries, which need to be removed and charged for several hours, while the  lithium-ion batteries seconded from the e-trons can be charged directly where the vehicles are parked during normal downtimes. This saves space and also eliminates the high manual effort required to replace the lead-acid equivalents. If Audi converted its entire fleet of factory vehicles to lithium-ion batteries at its 16 production sites worldwide, it would save literally millions and millions of dollars.

Every lithium-ion battery represents high energy consumption and valuable resources that must be used in the best possible way

Audi’s project teams from production, logistics and development have been working on this second use of used battery modules for around two years and following these successful first tests is now investigating the potential in the first converted factory vehicles in everyday production. It is even conceivable that used battery modules could be used in mobile charging containers for electric vehicles or in stationary energy storage systems.

Backup solution 
Rivian also revealed its own second-life initiative this year, employing the batteries from its development vehicles in a solar microgrid project with the Honnold Foundation in Adjuntas, Puerto Rico, which is expected to launch in 2020. Propelling its striking R1T from 0-60 mph, for example, takes a lot more power than merely turning on the lights in a house. Rivian and the Honnold Foundation selected Adjuntas as the site of the project partly as a result of to the town being struck by Hurricane Maria in 2017, and the community has been struggling with power since. If successful, Rivian and Honnold’s microgrid initiative could help many of the businesses located near the town’s main square. Residents could also have backup power in the event of power shortages.

Nissan’s second-life collaboration using its LEAF batteries has been well documented and at E-Waste World Conference & Expo 2019, Eaton’s Dirk Kaiser, segment leader of Distributed Energy, will provide an update on the latest developments. “The batteries as power storage units far outlast the typical life of a car,” he says. “In order to bring a commercially viable solution to the market, it requires not only the battery expertise of Nissan, but also the experience in power management, control and integration that Eaton offers.” The first module deployed combined second-life LEAF batteries with Eaton’s uninterruptable power supply (UPS) technology and solar PV to create a standalone energy storage and control package that allows customers to manage energy consumption and supply while connected to – or independent of – the grid.

In order to bring a commercially viable solution to the market, it requires not only the battery expertise of Nissan, but also the experience in power management, control and integration that Eaton offers

A further innovative application was announced by Nissan earlier this year, with its Nissan Energy ROAM power pack featuring on the OPUS smart camping concept, which utilizes second-life Nissan EV batteries to deliver up to a week’s worth of remote power on the go. “Our customers already have the capability to take control of their energy use at home through Nissan’s residential storage solutions,” reveals Francisco Carranza, managing director, Nissan Energy. “Now we can give them complete independence to experience ‘off-grid’ adventures. The new Nissan Energy ROAM can deliver clean, sustainable power to the most remote of locations, and be enjoyed by everyone.”

Perfect partnership 
Battery to energy is seemingly the ultimate virtuous cycle. At least, that’s the message from both Matthew Lumsden at Connected Energy and Jean-Denis Curt at Groupe Renault, two companies that have been working together for some time and are both speaking at E-Waste World Conference & Expo in Frankfurt this November. “Our batteries are designed for highly demanding usage,” says Curt’s colleague, Amaury Gailliez, battery business and operations director at Groupe Renault. “Therefore, they are designed to be durable, and reliable. When our batteries no longer operate at full capacity, they still deliver high performance in stationary use. It’s hard to think of a better use for them, given how essential energy storage will become to ensure the power grid is responsive and resilient.”

“More and more electric vehicles on the road means more and more storage units for the future, which can be reused instead of buying and/or manufacturing new batteries,” adds Lumsden. “Meanwhile, the battery’s exacting design standards guarantee that we’re offering very safe and reliable products. Linking these batteries together into integrated units, we can then use them to store renewable energy, balance the grid during peak load times, and so on. This suddenly makes energy storage much cheaper, more readily available and more accessible to all. Developing energy storage also means developing affordable, low-carbon electricity – which is good news for all sectors, including electric mobility. It truly is a virtuous circle.”

Developing energy storage also means developing affordable, low-carbon electricity – which is good news for all sectors, including electric mobility. It truly is a virtuous circle

So, what future developments can we expect to see in the use of electric vehicle batteries for energy storage? “From a business perspective, I believe the growing availability of batteries will keep driving larger-scale energy storage projects as well as large numbers on industrial and commercial sites,” Lumsden predicts. “For instance, we currently have E-STOR systems operating and being built with capacities of between 60kW and 6MW but we expect to be deploying commercial 20MW systems by 2020. Ultimately, I expect energy storage will become a normal part of energy consumption for many organizations. Our objective is to maintain its commercial viability relative to other technologies.”

“We are looking at truly enormous potential, that much is certain,” agrees Gailliez. “Look at the growth of battery capacity: we started from cars with 22kWh batteries, and soon we will reach the 100kWh mark. Even if those were to lose 20% of their capacity during their first life, that is still a lot of power to draw on. The millions of electric vehicles that will take to the road in coming years represent millions of second lives to support a more efficient and responsive power grid.”

Look at the growth of battery capacity: we started from cars with 22kWh batteries, and soon we will reach the 100kWh mark. Even if those were to lose 20% of their capacity during their first life, that is still a lot of power to draw on

This way of thinking can also scale up. Renault’s Advanced Battery Storage project aims to build the largest stationary energy battery storage system ever conceived, and to do so using electric vehicle batteries, by 2020 in Europe. With such plans in place, the circular economy of electric vehicle batteries is making it possible to simultaneously promote the use of renewable energy and to speed up the transition to smart energy grids. Electric vehicle batteries only reach the recycling stage after several years of extra use thanks to this second life. At the end of their journey, the challenge is to then handle used batteries in such a way as to allow for the rapid re-use of the resources they contain, either within the automotive sector or an adjacent industry. That’s the idea behind short-loop recycling, one of the driving forces of the circular economy.

Readying for the roll-out 
While it was late to join the electric vehicle party, there are few car companies looking at electrifying their fleet as aggressively as Volkswagen, partly due to playing catchup and possibly due to the ‘Dieselgate’ scandal. VW has gone on record stating it plans to launch almost 70 new electric models in the next 10 years. As a result, the projected number of vehicles to be built on the its electric platforms in the next decade will increase to 22 million. Volkswagen is therefore investing more than €30 billion into the electrification of the fleet by 2023 – and it, too, recognizes that digging those metals out of discarded batteries can be cheaper than digging-up ores from the ground. Helping reduce the carbon impact of transportation – not just from the vehicles when they are driven, but over their entire lifespan, from raw material to junkyard – requires tight control over how batteries are recycled. To tackle the challenge, Volkswagen’s end-of-life strategy is twofold: portable re-chargers and energy-efficient recycling.

Volkswagen plans to produce a portable quick-charging station, which can hold up to 360kWh and can charge up to four vehicles at a time. It has been designed to use the same battery packs as Volkswagen’s MEB electric vehicle chassis, so that when those packs reach the end of their useful life, they can have a second career as a recharge station.

At some point, though, all batteries lose the ability to hold energy, so that’s where a project at Volkswagen’s Salzgitter component plant comes into play, which is expected to become the new home of its battery recycling operation as well as a cell production joint venture with Sweden’s Northvolt. In 2020, the Salzgitter center plans on an initial capacity to recycle roughly 1,200 tons of EV batteries a year, equal to the batteries from about 3,000 vehicles. In the long term, Volkswagen wants to recycle about 97% of all raw materials in its battery packs. Today, it’s roughly 53%, and the plant in Salzgitter expects to raise it further to about 72%.

Dealing with end-of-life batteries will be a huge business in the coming years but it will take time until the actual recycling of the batteries will reach significant scale

Naturally, the final word has to go to Hans Eric Melin, who has been steering the Electric Vehicles & Battery Recycling track at E-Waste World Conference & Expo and is a recognized global expert on all things lithium-ion. “By 2025, three-quarters of used EV batteries will be re-used and then recycled to harvest raw materials,” he concludes “Dealing with end-of-life batteries will be a huge business in the coming years but it will take time until the actual recycling of the batteries will reach significant scale.”

Hans Eric Melin will be delivering a keynote presentation at E-Waste World Conference & Expo entitled ‘The EV battery – the key to a circular industry(synopsis below). The conference takes place from Thursday 14 November to Friday 15 November at the Kap Europa, Frankfurt Messe, Germany. To register for this highly focused, solutions-driven event, please click here. For sponsorship and exhibition opportunities, please email peter@trans-globalevents.com

 

The battery is by far the most expensive and valuable component in an electric vehicle. It also typically has a longer lifespan than the vehicle itself. These factors change everything for the automotive industry – from sourcing of components to end-of-life strategy. Just like any big change, this brings both challenges and opportunities – but it also creates a completely new landscape of players and activities with consequences not only for the car companies but as much for car dealers, workshops, energy providers, battery manufacturers, recyclers and waste collectors. The only thing that is certain is that the automotive industry will need to be more circular than ever before and maybe more than any other industry.

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