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Experts: EV Battery Lives Must Be Managed Responsibly

A lithium-ion battery, if managed well, can have a long initial life in an electric vehicle and even a second life for other uses. Battery components should also be recycled to reduce the need for heavy metals mining.

Electric car lithium battery
Shutterstock/Smile Fight
As electric vehicles gain wider use, the need to ensure the longest life possible for EV batteries, and new lives for them later, takes on added importance.

Stephanie Valdez Streaty, director of mobility research and development at Cox Automotive, said a closed loop ecosystem for the batteries will be key to cutting down on the negative environmental effects of metals mining.

“So it’s going to be really important that we start to build this robust supply chain around EV battery care-taking in the U.S.,” said Streaty, speaking during a panel discussion on the “circularity” of the transportation sector, which refers to making both car manufacturing and car operations more sustainable. The panel was organized by The Ray, a transportation test bed and research organization in Georgia.

Perhaps the one part of EVs that gives environmentalists and others the most pause are the large batteries. They are generally lithium-ion batteries that require the mining of heavy metals, a process that carries its own environmental costs. It takes about 500,000 gallons of water to mine one metric ton of lithium, Streaty pointed out.

“That’s a lot of water, and we don’t always think about the water impact of EVs. We always talk about the carbon. But there’s some water implications,” she added.

Companies like Cox Automotive hope to generate second lives for EV batteries. These second lives can include energy storage or grid stabilization and can last as long as another seven years.

When batteries are ready for recycling, units are disassembled and sent to other recyclers, Streaty explained. By 2025, more than 500,000 batteries will reach the end of their lives. By 2030, this number jumps to one million, further underscoring the need for the improved management of the battery from cradle to grave. Studies have shown that, by 2040, effective recycling of EV batteries can reduce the demand for lithium by 25 percent, cobalt and nickel by 35 percent, and copper by 55 percent.

Cox Automotive has developed a battery health score, which ranges from zero to five based on data pulled from the battery. The company has also created the battery service center, which Streaty described as a “one-stop shop, where we can start to create the EV life battery support system to ensure that batteries are optimized in the first life, have a second life and then are properly recycled.”

“We’re really hoping that this will create an industry standard, but also create trust and transparency in the industry around EVs,” said Streaty. “I think having this battery health score, and bringing confidence into the sale of used EVs, is going to be critical.”

Clearly, lithium-ion batteries have wide application. They are used in other mobility devices like electric scooters and bikes. Bird, the scooter operator, has developed a battery management system that involves real-time monitoring of battery cells and recalculating how much of a charge to release to allow for the longest battery life.

The batteries on Bird scooters operate for about 15,000 miles before their capacity declines to about 80 percent, said David TenHouten, vice president of vehicle engineering at Bird. When the batteries, which each hold 6.3 grams of lithium, do reach their end of life, they are “responsibly recycled.”

“We developed our innovative battery management system to uniquely elevate the sustainability and safety of our custom designed and engineered vehicles, so that our riders and partner cities can further reduce reliance on gas-powered car trips,” TenHouten said in an email.

TenHouten pointed out that the electric power needed to transport a person on a scooter is only 10 percent of the power needed to move them in an electric car.

“So batteries used in scooters by the end of life have delivered 10 times the transportation for their produced mass comparatively,” he added.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.