Raw materials from EV battery recycling have smaller carbon footprint – study

Red cobalt salt and blue-green nickel salt obtained from a battery cell. (Image by Valeria Azovskaya, courtesy of Aalto University).

A new study by researchers at Finland’s Aalto University states that the carbon footprint of the raw materials obtained by recycling electric car batteries is 38% smaller than that of virgin raw materials. 

To reach this conclusion, the scientists used simulation-based life-cycle to account for energy and water consumption, as well as emissions in the hydrometallurgical recycling process, which is commonly smelting.

This process typically loses lithium and other raw materials. Novel hydrometallurgical processes, on the other hand, separate battery metals from waste by dissolution and enable the recovery of all metals but consume large amounts of energy and chemicals, and often produce contaminated wastewaters.

Despite these shortcomings, the experts found smaller overall ‘side effects’ when battery metals are recycled, particularly copper and aluminum. 

Yet, they also found problem areas.

The experts found smaller overall ‘side effects’ when battery metals are recycled, particularly copper and aluminum

“We noticed that using sodium hydroxide as a neutralizing chemical significantly increases the environmental load of our process,” Marja Rinne, lead author of the paper, said in a media statement.

Given these results, Rinne and her colleagues propose using simulation-based life-cycle analyses before new processes are implemented. In their view, these evaluations are useful for determining how certain choices or parameters affect the environmental impacts of a process, making them an efficient decision-making tool for both industry and policymakers. 

With the EU expecting to host 30 million electric cars by 2030 and aiming to recycle 95% of cobalt, nickel and copper, and 70% of lithium from EVs by the end of the decade, the researchers believe now is the time to develop alternative recycling methods.

“We will have a massive need for recycling, and we have to find the most viable and ecological recycling processes. Research into technological innovations and their environmental impact go hand in hand,” Mari Lundström, co-author of the study, said in the brief.