Carlos Tavares, boss of Stellantis, was (barely) ironic about the possibility of a shortage of resources for all manufacturers to go electric. Will there be enough batteries for everyone, and especially for all ambitious sales targets to be met? The future will tell. But one thing is certain, nickel, lithium and cobalt are in high demand. So much so that manufacturers could well decide to regain control of “their” vehicles. Even if they do not belong to them, since there is still a segment of the population who decides to buy their car rather than renting it in LOA or LLD.
Recover end-of-life electric cars
To build their electric cars, manufacturers buy raw materials indirectly, by signing supply contracts for the “equivalent” GWh of batteries. But behind, they mainly buy metals. If they were never too worried about the cost of producing thermals, dependent on steel, aluminum and much more widespread metals, they could well tell themselves that the recovery of electrics at the end of their life would be a huge financial asset.
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Rather than paying again for the production of batteries from metals extracted by countries with a monopoly (China, Australia, Congo, etc.), automotive groups could thus recycle “their” own batteries at the end of their life to put them back on the road in new vehicles. They would thus have control over their batteries, rather than calling on third parties who take care of recovering and recycling them.
And it doesn’t matter if, in the meantime, the form and integration of the battery has changed: a cell is a cell, and there will always be lithium in batteries (at least in current chemistry). And given the cost of metals, recycling could, over time, be more interesting than buying raw materials from producers…
How long does an electric car battery last?
The answer to this question depends on too many factors to be categorical. Most manufacturers guarantee their pack for 8 years (some 10 years or more, but this is rarer). Which obviously does not mean that the battery will be unusable after 8 years or 160,000 km. This will mainly be related to charging. Motorists who use their electric vehicle for short trips tend to charge at home, on low-power sockets. This will limit the heating of the battery (causing the formation of “dentrites” internally, which accelerates the aging of the battery). Conversely, people who regularly charge on powerful and fast terminals will inevitably observe a shortened lifespan., except to have a battery pack with very elaborate cooling (like that of a Porsche Taycan). Other factors, such as keeping the “SoC” (state of charge) between 20-80%, helps extend battery life. Overall, the wear and tear of a battery follows a logarithmic curve: very high in the first few years, then “shrinks” thereafter. But each case is different: type of chemistry (LFP, NMC…), cooling, use, all this will impact the health of the battery. And then, a battery that drops to 70% charge capacity or less is not to be thrown away. It will simply be emptied faster.
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Renault, Audi… manufacturers recycle
There is no shortage of examples of manufacturers communicating on battery recycling. Except that for now, they don’t have much to eat. If we estimated at the time of the first electrics the lifespan of a battery at 8/10 years, it appears in fact that they go further before actually retiring. 12 or even 15 years old. It’s past the age of the very first “mainstream” electrics, such as the Renault Zoe Mk1 or the first-generation Nissan Leaf. In other words: we are not yet at the point where manufacturers can collect hundreds of thousands of batteries for recycling. However, the sector is getting organized. Renault already has a recycling contract and a unique pilot plant project, in partnership with Veolia and the chemical specialist, Solvay. The aim is to build a “circular ecosystem of metals from electric batteries in Europe”. Collect batteries (with Veolia), dismantle them, recycle each component and metal, then recover the raw materials to make new batteries.
“Once the diagnosis has been made and the battery has been made safe thanks to a gradual drop in voltage, the phase of deconstruction and crushing of the components and cells begins, before the effective extraction of the metals contained. The non-cellular components are reused or recycled for specific alloys in new industrial applications (aluminum, cables, steel, plastics, etc.), Véolia specified in 2021.
This process has so far proved to be too expensive to be competitive with the price of raw metals, but for the past two years, their court has soared. And then, without going as far as recycling, manufacturers can also use these “used” batteries (which are often around 60 to 70% of SoC, too little for the automotive customer, but still largely enough for others uses) in buildings. Very interesting storage units, which also offer the possibility of “buffering” in the event of a power shortage. Something that is no longer really excluded in 2022, these days.
The Volkwagen Example
Last year, Volkswagen announced that it was working on a completely new commercial format. After a first leasing contract, the idea would be to put the car back on lease (LLD, in particular) once, or even twice. The objective would thus be to bring the car to the end of the battery’s life without it leaving the Volkswagen “house”, which will remain its owner until the end. “The life of a battery is approximately 350,000 km or 1000 cycles. The battery is therefore more likely to last longer than the vehicle.and we want to keep our hands on these batteries”, explained Herbert Diess when he was still the boss of the Volkswagen group. His departure may have called into question this new rental scheme, but it seems so interesting on paper for the manufacturer that we can hardly imagine the German high authorities completely forgetting about it.Making the construction of a car profitable with two or even three leasing contracts to then recover the battery at the end (to recycle it, or to use it of storage unit for industry) seems relevant on paper, in any case, as long as the price of metals is so high.