No country for old batteries

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Updated Jan 16, 2019

The Tesla Semi showed up at JB Hunt’s headquarters in Arkansas on Friday and created quite a stir. Photos on Twitter showed people lined up to take a closer look at the all-electric truck that’s continued to generate headlines all over the world.

Tesla’s community forum was filled with praise for the Semi. One devoted fan wrote how pleased he was to see the Semi and how he couldn’t wait to see the road cleared of all these smelly, dirty diesels. He sees an EV, doesn’t notice any smells, noise and emissions and assumes that the panacea of the auto world has arrived.

But then again, what he doesn’t see in his own backyard won’t hurt him, right?

I’m assuming this guy didn’t make it to ACT Expo earlier this year during a conference focusing on end-of-life EV battery use. Or if he did, maybe he just wasn’t willing to listen.

Second-life use makes sense. ACT panelists explained that once an EV battery is no longer viable for on-road use (usually below 80 percent storage capacity) it can be repurposed as a mobile or stationary power source in lieu of a conventional generator powered by an internal combustion engine. Who knows? They could prove to be a hit here in hurricane country where generators seem to be as plentiful as palm trees.

But then someone in the audience asked, “What happens after that?”

That’s the problem. Right now there are no easy answers following second-life use.

China-based BYD, the largest manufacturer of EVs in the world, announced at ACT that it would be opening a battery recycling plant in China, but cobalt is the real attraction—not lithium, nickel and other materials found in EV batteries.

“On the recycling side, the real thing that’s driving recycling right now is cobalt,” Miller said. “Cobalt, in the last few years, has skyrocketed in price causing people to be really interested in the recycling of this product.

“Unfortunately, I’m sad to report that it’s not a very efficient process,” Miller continued. “Right now, they’re smelting these batteries and they’re getting out anywhere from 40 to 60 percent of the cobalt and the rest results in slag—a highly toxic output that is not very usable.”

Still, Miller explained that the value of cobalt is paying for the recycling process and that improvements in recycling methods continue to develop.

“These efforts are growing rapidly,” he said. “It is economic to grow this.”

But for how long? Cobalt mining has gotten a lot of bad press owed to reports of human rights violations, namely forced child labor. Roughly 60 percent of the cobalt mined in the world comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo. And as Miller pointed out, the price of cobalt has skyrocketed.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted that his company’s next gen batteries would be cobalt-free. But when that will happen is anyone’s guess. Panasonic currently manufacturers batteries for Tesla. Cobalt in lithium-ion batteries aids in the cooling process which increases battery stability and helps lower the risk of battery fires.

So unless prices come down and major labor reform policies are enacted in the DRC, the future of cobalt looks pretty dubious which brings us back to the problem of battery recycling and disposal. As the EV market continues to grow and expand into larger and commercial vehicle classes, all of those batteries will eventually reach end of life and come home to roost. But where exactly will they go? Maybe they’ll be used as cornerstones for Musk Retirement Centers around the country? Perhaps they’ll end up on Mars? Maybe that’s the real reason behind Musk’s interest in the Red Planet?

I contacted a major OEM today to find out what plans they had in place to handle spent EV batteries on their vehicles. The salesperson I was chatting with online abruptly ended the conversation and referred me to his company’s consumer affairs department. That was pretty telling and didn’t exactly inspire a lot of confidence.

At this point, it looks like until technology completely redeems these exotic and toxic burnouts, they’ll be destined for long-term storage, like nuclear waste. That or expect increased government involvement and costs to help cover the very costly process of recycling. Perhaps both.