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EV battery recycling is still a growing industry in Australia. So what happens to your old electric car batteries when you don’t need them anymore?

In 2023, Australia’s electric car uptake increased almost three times compared to 2022, meaning EVs now account for seven per cent of all new car sales.

RELATED: How many electric cars have caught fire in Australia?

While the average age of cars on Australian roads is more than 10 years old, electric cars are still relatively in their infancy – meaning less is known about their end-of-life processes, particularly for their high-voltage batteries.

In mid-2023, research by the University of Technology Sydney – commissioned by the not-for-profit Battery Stewardship Council – revealed 30,000 tonnes of used electric vehicle batteries will enter the waste stream in Australia by 2030.

So what will happen to your old electric car battery when you eventually replace it? And where does your EV battery end up if it is damaged in a car accident?

We ask the experts.

Are electric car batteries recyclable?

Yes, old electric car batteries are currently recycled in Australia through a combination of onshore and offshore processing – although the process is costly and currently only available to manufacturers.

“Currently (end-of-life recyclers) charge a significant cost (to manufacturers), but – because there’s no volume – a lot of the processes are one-off, so we are working with the industry and peak bodies to ensure we have significant volume,” Dickson Leow, CEO of Melbourne-based recycler IM Group, tells Drive.

This lack of volume has meant regulators are still playing catch-up in the EV battery recycling space.

“No battery should go to landfill (in Australia),” Katharine Hole, the CEO of the Australian Battery Recycling Initiative (ABRI), tells Drive.

Ms Hole says the ABRI is working with manufacturers, the government and other industry bodies to develop best practice strategies and put appropriate laws in place for when volumes increase – particularly for electric cars that are out of warranty or damaged in an accident.

“In the (car) scrap industry, you’ve got companies that perform well and some that don’t. If 60–80 per cent of people are doing the right thing, let’s focus on the problem parts,” she says.

According to Tesla, Australia’s most popular electric car brand, “None of our scrapped lithium-ion batteries go to landfill, and 100 per cent are recycled”.

“Before decommissioning a consumer battery pack and sending it for recycling, Tesla does everything it can to extend the useful life of each battery pack,” the brand’s official website states.

Which companies offer electric car battery recycling in Australia?

Ms Hole says there are “five or six start-ups” in Australia that have recently gained government funding and have directly partnered with manufacturers to provide recycling solutions.

Melbourne-based company IM Group is “leading the space” Ms Hole says, but companies like Envirostream, EcoBatt, Daintree Batteries and Tes Amm are also expanding their businesses.

EcoBatt, for example, works with brands like Polestar, Mercedes, Volvo, Porsche, BMW, Hyundai and Nissan.

“At present, our current volumes within the electric vehicle (EV) market are not extensive, but we anticipate significant growth in the coming years,” a spokesperson for EcoBatt told Drive.

EcoBatt’s expansion plans include a $30 million investment to develop a lithium-ion battery recycling plant, scheduled to commence operations in late 2025 and capable of processing 25,000 tonnes of batteries annually.

Additionally, there is a burgeoning battery remanufacturing industry in Australia, which takes old EV batteries that have lost capacity and repurposes them – either into remanufactured EV batteries or energy storage systems.

Dickson Leow, CEO of IM Group, explains: “You may have three (old EV) batteries and from those three you can make one good one, that’s the other service we provide manufacturers. We want to ensure that no battery ends up in landfill”.

A spokesperson for Polestar Australia says the brand had a “circular approach”, with a modular battery design allowing modules to be individually repaired “so our cars don’t have to be written off”.

However, if a module cannot be repaired, Polestar Australia must currently send it to be recycled via its local recycling partner, EcoBatt.

“Polestar is also looking to identify opportunities for remanufacturing onshore in Australia,” the spokesperson said.

How are electric car batteries disposed of?

According to EcoBatt, the majority of electric car batteries that come through its recycling plants are either out of warranty or part of a recall.

“We have observed minimal volumes of electric vehicle (EV) batteries coming from vehicles that have been written off or severely damaged in accidents. The largest volumes we have received thus far are primarily from warranty replacements and product recalls initiated by manufacturers,” an EcoBatt spokesperson tells Drive.

The process of disassembling and recycling an EV battery is a lengthy one, with a mix of onshore and offshore processing.

“When the EV battery comes in, (it is discharged and) the energy will be captured and sent back to the grid, the battery will be dismantled and the bits that aren’t the cells or metals will go into materials recycling,” Ms Hole of the ABRI explains.

“Then the battery cells will be crushed and that creates something called black mass, which is a mix of minerals and metals. That’s then refined and processed – that process is at a pilot stage in Australia – and then it’s sent offshore, bought and put into new battery products.”

Black mass – or black sand as it’s sometimes called – is a hot commodity that contains valuable metals like nickel, cobalt and lithium, but these require extensive refining in order to be recovered effectively and thus must be sent to countries with more advanced capabilities – like Korea.

“The black sand, containing valuable metals, is exported to specialised refining companies equipped to extract and refine these critical metals,” a spokesperson for EcoBatt explains to Drive.

“Once refined, these metals can be reintroduced into the battery manufacturing supply chain, thereby closing the loop on resource utilisation.”

Ms Hole says Australia is hoping to eventually emulate Europe, where the black mass is retained internally.

“The recycling industry would be quite keen to retain the black mass here – we can add value to it here,” Ms Hole says.

“We have strong environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) credentials in Australia, and the companies here are working hard to ensure the process has a low greenhouse footprint and uses clean chemicals to strip out the minerals from the black mass.”

Who pays for electric car battery recycling?

If your electric car’s battery is still under warranty, then this process will come at the expense of the manufacturer, but if it’s outside of warranty – this can be something of a grey area.

“At present, the cost of electric vehicle (EV) battery recycling is primarily covered by manufacturers and dealers, who are our clients, or any entity that requests our services for recycling their EV batteries. These costs are not currently covered under any existing stewardship schemes,” a spokesperson for EcoBatt told Drive.

“Initially, manufacturers typically bear the cost of recycling as part of warranty obligations. However, over time, as warranties expire, the responsibility for covering recycling expenses may shift towards consumers.”

Most manufacturers offer a battery warranty on their electric cars that spans roughly eight years or 160,000km.

Typically, that warranty guarantees your electric car battery won’t lose more than 70 per cent of its capacity in that period. If it does, the manufacturer will replace it free of charge.

“As for the specific cost an individual might incur when recycling their EV battery with EcoBatt, it would depend on various factors such as the size and type of the battery, transportation logistics, and any additional services required,” the EcoBatt spokesperson explains.

“For precise pricing information, individuals are encouraged to directly contact EcoBatt for a personalised assessment based on their specific needs and circumstances.”

The post What happens to old electric car batteries? appeared first on Drive.

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