Creating Order in Chaos, Or Why I Study EV Battery Recycling

Linda Gaines, Transportation Systems Analyst
UCS Science Network | May 14, 2014, 11:34 am EST
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I spend much of my time trying to create order out of disorganized information. That’s what scientists do. I decided to become a scientist when I understood the beautiful way the Periodic Table organizes the chemical elements. Similarly, my genealogy project is detective work that orders family members (more than 2,600 past and present, so far) according to their relationships. Another of my passions, classical music, is also made of precisely ordered structures. My work at Argonne National Laboratory on battery recycling is like assembling a complicated puzzle with missing and extraneous pieces.

I majored in chemistry and physics and went to graduate school in physics, doing maser spectroscopy of molecules being sought in the interstellar medium. I married a high-energy physicist. When we graduated, we needed 2 jobs in the same location, which had to be near an accelerator. I interviewed with a chemist at the University of Chicago, and our professional interests seemed to mesh, but his spectroscopy funding was limited. As I was leaving, I saw a flowchart on his door, showing all of the materials and processes that go into making an automobile. I said, “Gee, that’s interesting!” and he said, “Oh, I have money for that stuff. Do you want a job?” So I became an energy analyst, and my colleagues and I wrote a book comparing total social costs of coal and nuclear power.

Flowchart depicting the materials and processes needed for producing an automobile.

Flowchart depicting the materials and processes needed for producing an automobile. It was this flowchart that started the author down the path to becoming an energy analyst.

I moved on to Argonne, where my first project involved investigating the energy use and emissions associated with the manufacture of materials used in cars and other consumer goods. I documented in detail how our contemporary way of life is very resource-intensive. Given that the earth’s resources are finite, matching each resource with its most appropriate and efficient use is an important puzzle that is amenable to scientific analysis. For example, liquid fuels are especially suited for transport because of their high energy density. Electricity can be used to extend the number of miles we can drive, without any inconvenience or additional infrastructure. Solar energy (plus storage) makes sense for electricity generation in Arizona, but less so in Illinois, where the sun shines less. I have recently become one of the editors of a new journal (Sustainable Materials and Technologies) that addresses related issues.

Recycling is important for batteries of electric and hybrid vehicles, too.

Batteries from electric and hybrid vehicles should remain valuable resources after a vehicle’s life is over, instead of simply being disposed.

Many of our used materials are not actually wastes but can be recycled. This allows us to get more value from the resources harvested. In my current work, I’m trying to make sure that batteries from electric and hybrid vehicles remain a valuable resource and do not become a troublesome waste—requiring the use of yet more resources—at the end of the vehicles’ lives. The appropriate recycling processes will differ by battery type. Evaluation of different processes illuminates when it makes the most sense to reuse, repurpose, or recycle used batteries. Not all recycling processes are equally beneficial—the closer you recover to finished product, in general, the more you save energy and reduce emissions, and the more economical the process can be.

A key element of my work is evaluating the surfeit of information available to determine what is scientifically verifiable, and what is opinion or misperception. It’s imperative to discard preconceptions and assemble all of the facts into an ordered and coherent story. Scientists should remain objective and report all sides of the issues, so that the facts can speak for themselves.

Posted in: Vehicles

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  • Linda Gaines

    For more information, you can surf around our website: I’d suggest starting with a fact sheet. The short answer is that batteries with cobalt in them are economical to recover now. The key to making recycling of other chemistries economic is recovering a high-valued compound instead of an element.

  • Richard

    Thanks for a good general introduction to some of the issues involved. I’d like to read more about which batteries benefit from which type of reuse, repurposing, and/or recycling, etc. I hope you will share more info on this or suggest links which will lead me to info on this. FYI, I am not an engineer or physicist. So, the info would need to be ‘reader friendly’ for someone who can grasp scientific concepts as long as these are explained thoroughly.