Electric vehicles will play an important role in the fight against climate change. But that changes when the batteries inside these cars die, scientists say. They are toxic, dangerous, and pose a serious threat to the environment, and we don’t know how best to dispose of them yet. The problem will only get worse as every major car manufacturer in the world is devoting billions of dollars to ramp up production on EVs.
There were 11 million electric vehicles on the road in 2020. Experts expect that number to hit 145 million by the end of the decade, Science.org notes. This is only possible because of the giant batteries that power the cars. These batteries can weigh more than 1,000 pounds and can last hundreds of thousands of miles through thousands of charging sessions. But eventually, they will die. What do we do then?
Lithium-ion batteries are toxic. If thrown in a landfill, they will leak harmful chemicals into the ground. Store the batteries improperly, and they could start a fire. Recycling them would be the most efficient and environmentally friendly thing to do, but that poses another series of problems, Wire Magazine wrote. It’s cheaper to mine the lithium and cobalt inside the batteries than it is trying to extract them. The left-over power inside these “dead” batteries can also seriously injure anyone not well-trained and careful.
The automakers currently warehouse the batteries from cars that are still under warranty. The companies aren’t sure what the secondary market for these will look like in the future. Recyclers are scrambling to figure out how to create that market before the car manufacturers decide to dump the batteries.
California’s Rush on Electric Vehicles Causes Concern
California is leading the charge on electric vehicles. The Golden State pledged $10 billion last week to help transition all residents to EVs by 2035. But this push will exacerbate the industry’s battery problem, experts told The Daily Bulletin.
“There still aren’t enough people who understand (retired) batteries well enough to responsibly handle them,” said Zora Chung, co-founder of ReJoule Inc. “Ultimately, we need more education and to have a more efficient marketplace to re-deploy these batteries into a second-life application.”
Ironically, one of the biggest hurdles the industry will need to get over is regulatory. The government considers lithium-ion batteries to be hazardous waste. So, handling them requires several special permits that are expensive can take years to get. That could make throwing them away more efficient than recycling them.
“I think (battery recycling is) a lot farther away from a policy standpoint than from a technological standpoint,” said Hanjiro Ambrose, a UC Davis researcher told California officials.
Several experts told state officials that if California wants to be the vanguard of electric vehicles, the state should also lead in solving this battery problem. If not, the damage that the batteries could do to the environment may offset the benefits electric vehicles provide.