The short answer is yes. But this is a complicated question, so let’s dig in further.
The transition to electric vehicles (EVs) is necessary to decrease climate-changing emissions. As deployment increases, so will the demand for EV battery materials such as lithium, cobalt, and nickel. These materials are primarily supplied through two sources: 1) newly mined or 2) recovered by recycling batteries already in circulation.
Using recycled materials results in significantly less environmental impacts and is a substitute for those newly mined, although it requires the materials to have already been extracted, manufactured into a battery, and then retired from use.
Research shows there are enough explored or prospective reserves to electrify the global transportation sector using current technology if a high amount of battery recycling occurs. In this scenario, global demand in 2100 will amount to about 55% of cobalt reserves and 50% of lithium reserves.
This is in stark contrast to a future without high recycling rates.
If recycling doesn’t ramp up, a shortage of lithium, nickel, or cobalt is not likely, but it is estimated that the demand would exceed what is economically accessible to extract. In this scenario, demand in 2060 is more than cobalt reserves and about 90% of lithium reserves. In other words, for the forecasted demand to be met, extraction must go beyond what is seen as economically viable. This dwindling of reserves would likely raise material costs, triggering increased exploration and development, and potentially expand reserves.
Scientists evaluating resource availability through mining typically look at two categories: the total available resources and the reserves. This distinction is important because the reserves represent the global resources that are economical to extract, while the total resources represent an estimate of the finite global resources. Reserve estimations are therefore much less than total resources and fluctuate based on material value, mineral exploration, and technological development.
Recycling has many benefits
Recycling can drastically decrease new mining needs and is an essential strategy to sustainable, secure, and affordable electrification.
How is recycling more sustainable? The environmental impacts from using recycled content are much lower than newly mined materials. Since the materials recovered through recycling were already in the economy, the only impacts associated with their production are from transporting the battery to recycling, pre-processing, and recycling. By using recycled instead of newly mined materials, reduction of climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions is approximately 64%. Emissions which create smog and impact human health can also be mitigated; sulfur oxides can be reduced by 89% and nitrogen oxides by 78%.
Why is recycling an essential strategy to achieve secure and affordable electrification? In addition to comparing the available supply and demand, there are a lot of other factors that can lead to material shortages such as inadequate processing capacity and geopolitical supply chain issues. Recycling can secure a local supply of materials and decrease new material demand, all factors that can keep costs down.
How much demand can be met with recycled materials?
Estimates show that in the United States a large portion of future EV material demand can be met with recycled content. In 2050, recovered material can supply approximately 45–52% of cobalt, 40–46% of nickel, and 22–27% of lithium demand for EVs. In the short-term, recycled content will represent a smaller amount of battery materials—this grows as more material is in the economy and EV batteries retire.
Since mined materials will be needed to supplement recycled content, we need to ensure ethical and sustainable sourcing. In addition, it is essential that material demand is decreased through increasing the material efficiency of batteries and EVs and shifting away from car dependency and towards more public transportation.
Is recycling profitable?
While the exact economics of recycling facilities in operation are unknown, the plans for recycling facility expansion, along with recycling cost estimates using National Lab models, indicate lithium-ion battery recycling is (or soon will be) profitable. Since recycling is not a requirement in the US, current recycling is happening because of economics or funded research and development.
Recycling revenue is heavily influenced by the materials contained in the battery and their market value. Within a lithium-ion battery there is an anode, the negative electrode, and a cathode, the positive electrode. The battery charges and discharges by cycling lithium-ions between the anode and the cathode.
The materials used in the lithium-ion battery cathode vary. Until recently, most of the popular EVs contained a battery with cobalt and nickel because it enables them to have a long range in a compact size. Tesla and Ford are now transitioning towards a chemistry without cobalt for their lower range EVs, called lithium-iron phosphate (LFP). Nickel and cobalt are expensive materials and have some of the highest associated environmental and social impacts. Lessening the use of these materials is overall beneficial, but it also reduces the battery’s worth to recyclers.
As cobalt and nickel are reduced in batteries (or phased out completely) recycling can still be done, but it may not be profitable with current recycling technology. Since recycling isn’t a requirement, and the recycling occurring is mostly based on the positive economics, it is essential that policy is enacted to ensure all batteries are recycled, even if there are not high economic returns.
What does this mean for the long-term sourcing of materials for lithium-ion batteries?
There are enough materials to make EVs, but recycling is necessary to make them more sustainable, ethical, and affordable.
The switch from gasoline to electric presents a huge opportunity for efficient resource use. Unlike our current system, where we continually extract petroleum and burn it up in our cars and trucks adding to air pollution and climate change, the minerals we use to build EVs can be captured and reused to support the next generation of clean vehicles.
Currently, the United States doesn’t require lithium-ion battery recycling, but we do know that recycling is occurring, thanks to reports by recyclers and contracts between automakers and recyclers. While this is a good indicator, a policy that requires and supports the recycling of EV batteries is still necessary to ensure as many batteries are recycled as possible, even if it isn’t profitable.
EV battery recycling policy in the United States to-date consists of investment in recycling research, development, and demonstration, such as in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. California, on the other hand, is more actively exploring recycling requirements. A group of stakeholders recently submitted policy recommendations to the legislature, including the requirement that automakers are responsible for the recycling of EV batteries when they are retired. An outline of their process and findings can be found in a recent blog of mine. We will be following the next legislative session closely with the hope that good policy is developed.