Electric Vehicles are having the same problem as plastic
The time plastic was introduced in the world, its benefits in healthcare and food safety were all that people spoke about. After all, they were the major concerns of that era. And undoubtedly plastic has played a huge role in making food and medical equipment safer and easier to transport.
But today, plastics have one of the highest negative impacts on aquatic life, birds, camels and almost all animals — including humans — through macro and microplastics. And of course it has added to the waste pile at landfills affecting climate change.
As electric vehicles (EVs) are gaining momentum in light of environmental concerns, with promises of reducing carbon emissions, we are at the same point as we were when plastic was introduced. Because for electric vehicles to become better — hold more power and last longer — their batteries need to evolve.
These lithium-ion batteries are a lot different than those used in traditional fuel-powered vehicles, which means we are not yet able to recycle them; at least not most of them.
So what happens to these batteries? They end up in landfills, releasing toxic fumes and chemicals as they degrade. Moreover, they risk going through a process of “thermal runway” whereby they can heat up and explode. Ultimately, adding to pollution, increasing toxicity and impacting the already worsening climate crisis.
More than 1 million EVs were sold in 2017. A recent study published in the journal Nature estimates that those cars will result in 250,000 tons of discarded battery packs reaching landfills. 2018 saw 2 million EVs being sold. Projections suggest that by 2040 half of all new car sales would be EVs.
It is now more urgent than ever for scientists and entrepreneurs to collaborate to find recycling solutions for these batteries. In fact, scientists need to design EV batteries to be recyclable and reusable at the primary end of the manufacturing chain.
The challenge with batteries is that their capacity to hold power reduces over time; which means they are not optimal for use in EVs anymore. However, they can be used for other purposes, such as holding energy produced by solar panels. In Japan, Toyota did exactly this when it repurposed old EV batteries to supply power to 7-Eleven stores, by connecting them to solar panels.
For the entrepreneur in you — there is a financial benefit to recycling these batteries, with a potential industry worth $550 billion, if not more. Now, are you ready to save the world from electric vehicles?