With global warming on the rise, considerable interest has been showsn in switching to green, renewable energy. Battery-powered vehicles have emerged as the perfect replacement for fossil-fuel-powered vehicles. These vehicles are powered by rechargeable batteries and produce minimal emissions, making them the perfect vehicle for a net-zero economy.
However, as more and more lithium-ion, battery-powered vehicles are produced, the chance of creating a major waste crisis down the line increases. Aside from battery EVs, everything from mobile phones and laptops to watches and other consumer devices are also powered by batteries. So when these devices finally reach the end of their lifespan, where will all these batteries go?
As EVs become more popular, both auto makers, such as Tesla, and battery makers have been avidly working on cheaper lithium-ion batteries with greater ranges. But ironically, few of these firms are working on making these batteries more sustainable. Only 5% of the lithium-ion batteries used to power electric vehicles and high-tech products in America are recycled. The result? As the battery industry grows, more waste will be generated.
Recycling lithium-ion batteries is a more complex process than recycling metals, plastics and other paper products because they contain numerous chemical components that are toxic and difficult to separate. The lead-acid batteries used in gasoline-powered vehicles have relatively simple chemistries and designs that make them straightforward to recycle, similar to the common nonrechargeable alkaline or water-based batteries that power devices such as smoke alarms and flashlights.
On the other hand, lithium-ion batteries are highly sophisticated and contain hazardous chemicals such as lithium salts and transition metals that aren’t environmentally friendly. Additionally, these batteries also contain embedded electrochemical energy, or a small amount of charge left over after they can no longer power devices. This leftover energy can cause fires and explosions as well as harm people who handle the batteries, making them almost impossible to recycle.
Since the companies that manufacturer these batteries have little economic incentive to switch to recycling-friendly designs (it costs more to recycle a lithium-ion battery than what the recoverable materials inside are worth), the task usually falls to third-party recyclers. Because of the high cost of recycling, these firms find it cheaper to store the batteries than to treat and recycle them.
However, as the EV industry grows and older batteries are retired, such measures won’t hold up. Even though recycling technologies exist, such as pyrometallurgy and hydrimetalurgy, which can break down batteries and are becoming more economical and efficient, the lack of proper battery-recycling infrastructure will be a major roadblock to efficient recycling.
A company you should watch in the green technologies space is Net Element (NASDAQ: NETE). Not only did the global financial solutions company recently launch a blockchain-focused unit of its business, but it is also merging with an electric vehicle company once the agreement is finalized.
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