The era of the electric vehicle has arrived. GM, the world’s largest automaker, announced earlier this year that it plans to stop selling gasoline and diesel vehicles by 2035. Audi, a German automaker, intends to stop making such vehicles by 2033. Similar road maps have been released by a number of other automotive multinationals. Suddenly, major automakers’ hesitancy in electrifying their fleets has turned into a hasty retreat.

The electrification of personal mobility is gaining traction in ways that even its most ardent supporters could not have predicted only a few years ago. Government mandates will hasten change in many countries. According to the BloombergNEF (BNEF) consultancy in London, half of the global passenger-vehicle sales in 2035 will be electric, even without new policies or regulations.

Government incentives and the expectation of future regulations have prompted battery and carmakers to invest billions of dollars in lowering the costs of manufacturing and recycling electric-vehicle (EV) batteries. National research organizations have also established centers to investigate better ways to manufacture and recycle batteries. Because mining metals is still cheaper than recycling them in most cases, developing processes to recover valuable metals cheaply enough to compete with newly mined ones is a key goal.

The Future Of Lithium

Researchers’ first task is to reduce the amount of metals that must be mined for electric vehicle batteries. According to Argonne National Laboratory, a single-car lithium-ion battery pack (of the type known as NMC532) could contain around 8 kg of lithium, 35 kg of nickel, 20 kg of manganese, and 14 kg of cobalt.

Lithium-ion batteries are unlikely to be phased out anytime soon, according to analysts: their cost has dropped so dramatically that they are likely to remain the dominant technology for the foreseeable future. They are 30 times cheaper than the first time they entered the market in the early 1990s when their performance improved as a small mobile battery. BNEF plans to reduce the lithium-ion EV pack cost by under $100 per kilowatt-hour by 2023, or approximately 20 per cent lower than at present. As a result, by the mid-2020s, electric cars, which are still more expensive than conventional cars, should have reached price parity.

Managing The Metals

A number of laboratories have been experimenting with low-cobalt or cobalt-free cathodes to address the raw material issues. However, even if more than half of the lithium ions are removed during charging, cathode materials must be carefully designed so that their crystal structures do not break up. According to materials scientist Arumugam Manthiram of the University of Texas in Austin, abandoning cobalt completely lowers a battery’s energy density because it changes the cathode’s crystal structure and its ability to bind lithium tightly.

Manthiram is one of the researchers who has demonstrated that cobalt can be removed from cathodes without compromising performance — at least in the lab.

Better Recycling

Researchers will face an unintended consequence if batteries are made without cobalt. Because other materials, particularly lithium, are currently cheaper to mine than to recycle, the metal is the main factor that makes recycling batteries cost-effective.

Batteries are shredded first in a typical recycling plant, turning cells into a powdered mixture of all the materials used. The mixture is then either liquefied in a smelter (pyrometallurgy) or dissolved in acid to separate its constituent elements (hydrometallurgy). Metals are finally precipitated as salts out of solution.

Turning Up The Size

The scale will aid whatever recycling processes become commonplace. Although the impending constant stream of spent batteries has been portrayed in the media as a looming crisis, analysts see it as a huge opportunity, according to Melin. Economies of scale will kick in once millions of large batteries reach the end of their useful lives, making recycling more efficient — and the business case for it more appealing.