Electric cars are tackling climate change but what to do with their used batteries?

A lack of charging points and the functioning spans of batteries are key obstacles to be overcome
Electric cars are tackling climate change but what to do with their used batteries?

Electrifying transportation is one of the key ways of tackling the climate crisis but, as electric vehicles become more popular, they are creating another problem — what to do with their used batteries?

If current trends continue, more Irish people purchasing cars in the new year will opt for electric models.

Government policy is to have a million such cars on our roads by 2030 but, most experts agree, there isn’t a chance of reaching that target.

Of the 2.8m cars on Irish roads at present, only around 18,000 are electric and, while more electric vehicles were sold in the first nine months of this year than for all of last year, we’re still moving at snail’s pace. From January to September, sales of electric cars rose by 15% and those of hybrids by around 10%.

A lack of charging points and the functioning spans of batteries are key obstacles to be overcome.

Donal Hickey: 'While recycling batteries is highly desirable, harvesting useful materials from discarded lithium-ion batteries remains tedious and risky.'
Donal Hickey: 'While recycling batteries is highly desirable, harvesting useful materials from discarded lithium-ion batteries remains tedious and risky.'

An irony of environment-friendly actions is that they can also have a downside. Electrifying transportation is one of the key ways of tackling the climate crisis but, as electric vehicles become more popular, they are creating another problem — what to do with their used batteries?

While recycling batteries is highly desirable, harvesting useful materials from discarded lithium-ion batteries remains tedious and risky, according to a paper published in the journal, Nature.

There’s still hope, however. The authors of the paper say that changes — like designing batteries with recycling in mind and using robots to take them apart — could reshape battery recycling.

And such improvements could make electric vehicles even greener by using old batteries to supply materials needed to build new ones.

Globally, more than 1m electric vehicles are sold annually, which can, in the view of the paper’s authors, eventually result in 250,000 tonnes of discarded battery packs. If these were to end up in landfills, they run the risk of heating up, potentially to the point of burning or exploding.

They can actually stay useful long after being taken out of a vehicle. Much like a mobile phone over time, the battery in an electric car won’t be able to hold a charge for as long. So drivers get a new battery or a new car.

But the used battery can hold and discharge up to 80% of the power it did when it was brand new.

A new study at the University of Chicago is looking at imaginative ways of recycling batteries to the scale that the growing electric vehicle market demands.

But, the industry will need to overcome some key challenges, according to the study. Today’s batteries aren’t designed to be taken apart easily and all are not made in one standard way.

A lot of the work needs to be done by hand by people who are skilled enough to avoid hurting themselves in the process, as these things can explode and create noxious gases.

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