First ‘fully recycled’ battery cell announced

November 26, 2021

Production of lithium-ion battery cell entirely from recycled metals raises questions about whether proposed new EU rules are ambitious enough.

A Swedish battery maker has produced its first battery cell made with 100% recycled nickel, manganese and cobalt. 

Northvolt says its recycling process “recovers up to 95%” of the metals used in a battery – a milestone that demonstrates how technological advances are drastically reducing electric car batteries’ environmental impact. Batteries used in electric cars will form an integral part of a sustainable and circular economy, unlike the oil used in petrol and diesel cars which – as well as emitting climate harming CO2 – cannot be recycled.

Despite concerns often raised that the shift to electric vehicles (EVs) will lead to new raw material dependency, a T&Estudy shows that EV batteries actually need far less raw materials than fossil-fuel cars. 

When taking into account the recycling of the battery cell materials, T&E calculated how much was ‘lost’ during the lifetime of an EV. Under the recycling targets proposed as part of the EU’s new battery law – still subject to ongoing political negotiations – around 30 kilograms of metals would not be recovered and therefore would be lost. In contrast, the amount of petrol that is burned during the average lifetime of a vehicle is around 300-400 times more by weight than all of the battery cell metals lost. 

Northvolt’s announcement does not come as a surprise. It proves, once again, that EVs offer the most sustainable option for cars. 

Alex Keynes, clean vehicles manager at T&E, said: “It does beg the question: if we can obtain such high levels of recycling of battery materials already today, why are draft EU targets – set to come in in five and nine years time – not on par with these figures?”

While Northvolt successfully proves that battery metals can be fully recycled, EU regulation is not keeping pace. Battery producers are unlikely to meet similarly ambitious recycling targets if it is not mandated by law.

The new EU battery regulation, expected to come into effect in January 2023, proposes recycling targets to be met in 2026 and 2030, though national governments are proposing a further one-year delay – to 2027 and 2031. 

Some of these targets look impressive. For cobalt, copper and nickel – three key metals found in battery cells – the targets would mandate 90% recovery by 2026, rising to 95% in 2030 – though Northvolt’s announcement shows this can be done much earlier. 

Targets for lithium, on the other hand, are disappointing. The proposed recycling targets  would reach a meagre 35% in 2026, up to 70% in 2030, whereas the current commercial recovery rate for lithium is between 70-90% today.

These targets do not match the best available technology and they do not help to decrease the cost of recovering precious metals, says T&E. Currently, companies still prefer cheaper virgin materials over recycled metals. 

“The EU’s targets should strive to match the best current technology if they want to make Europe’s industry more competitive and ensure investments are not made in substandard technology,” advises Keynes.

The new battery regulation offers room for improvement, at a time where new technology is outpacing government regulation. Indeed, a recentstudyhas proven that batteries with recycled metals are as good, or even better, than those using brand new materials. Adequate regulation will promote technological innovation and ensure timely investments, says T&E.

The EU needs to set ambitious recycling rates for 2026 and 2030 at the latest to encourage companies to pursue the race for 100% recyclable batteries.

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