EV Automakers Under Pressure To Demonstrate Material Circularity

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The automotive sector is under increasing pressure to move forward toward material circularity, which, in lay terms, means assessing the share of material that is recycled and fed back into the economy. When the automotive industry focuses on rethinking the surrounding built environment with its materials, its construction techniques, and its methods, alongside livability, the transition to electric mobility takes on new significance.

With the growth of electric mobility, automotive manufacturers face the particular challenge of implementing a circular economy for electric vehicle (EV) batteries. The goal is to maintain products and materials at their highest utility at all times through closing, slowing, and narrowing material loops to ensure the minimization of resource input and waste, emission, and energy leakage.

  • “Closing the loop” refers to the recycling activities that minimize the use of new resources for manufacturing.
  • “Narrowing resource flows” aims to use fewer resources per product and improve efficiency.
  • “Slowing the loop” is related to the extension of the lifetime of a product, which defines its replacement speed and, thus, the consumption of natural resources required for their manufacture and the amount of waste they create.

A circular economy in the EV battery ecosystem can provide a sustainable solution to resource management.

Why the Auto Industry Needs to Enhance Material Circularity

With so many vehicles on the roads, the amount of emissions of CO2 and hydrocarbons have risen exponentially. According to the US EPA, about 29% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come from transportation, with on-road vehicles comprising 24%.

EVs, on the other hand, produce zero tailpipe emissions, so shifting to electric personal, public, and commercial transportation is an important measure to reduce climate pollution. EVs convert about 59% to 62% of their electrical energy from the power source to power at the wheels, in comparison to conventional internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, which only convert about 17% to 21% of the energy stored to power at the wheels. Pushed by both industry and legislation, the EV sector is expected to trigger tremendous shifts in vehicle supply chains in 2024 and through to 2035.

The EU is intensely focused on material circularity in transportation. They say that the value of products, materials, and resources is strengthened by returning them into the product cycle after they have reached the end of their lifecycle. Materials such as biomass, metals, minerals, and fossil fuels are extracted from the environment to make products or to produce energy, much of which is directed to transportation.

Such material flows, the EU says, are an essential part of the circular economy. The fewer products we discard and the more we recycle, the fewer materials we extract, thus benefiting our environment, while minimizing the generation of waste.

Battery Market & Energy Storage Systems are Crucial for Viability & Material Circularity

EVs have become part of a clarion call to solve the transportation emissions problem, and automakers are wagering on the success of the battery market and associated Energy Storage Systems (ESSs). ESSs have led to the improvement of human lives directly and indirectly because they are making the transition away from fossil fuels such as petrol and diesel more and more viable. Yet battery performance greatly affects the scalability of EVs.

Mohammadi and Saif write in E-Prime that the major challenges in the global battery market are mainly related to the technologies of battery energy storage systems and their applications and their multiplicity and flexibility.

  • High prices of battery energy storage systems: The costs of battery energy storage systems are a major barrier to their deployment, but it has been projected to see a significant drop in the costs of battery energy storage systems by 2028.
  • Lack of standardization: Different technical requirements, processes, and policies hinder battery manufacturers from further deploying battery energy storage systems.
  • Outdated regulatory policy and market design: Currently, regulatory policy lags behind the battery energy storage systems technologies that exist today. Except for wholesale market rules, retail rules should be updated based on residential, commercial, and industrial requirements.

Establishing circularity for EV battery materials can help to assuage some of these barriers to deployment and have become a focus area in scientific research for numerous reasons.

  • The battery comprises a significant share of the cost of an EV, mostly due to the volatility of market prices for specific materials.
  • Batteries are responsible for additional environmental and social impacts in the supply chain of the vehicle, due to energy use in cell production and unregulated working conditions at the material extraction stage.
  • Several materials are considered critical in terms of security of supply for manufacturers due to geopolitical dependency of supply chains and slow ramp-up of global mining capacities.

All together, these issues provide incentives for manufacturers to establish closed battery material loops and, thereby, reduce the environmental, economic and social risks associated with primary battery material supply in the future.

There are many approaches to material circularity in batteries. A July, 2023 review in the Journal of Environmental Management, however, synthesizes information and determines that first-life-related actions (e.g. extending the use of the battery) should be the priority. This perspective looks at the circular economy when it starts at the beginning of a product’s life cycle through an adequate design and efficient production avoiding carbon-intensive energy sources. It becomes a straightforward way to increase the sustainability of EV batteries by extending their first life as far as possible and delaying the end of the first life. This work captures an important environmental problem related to the underuse of the battery, which can hinder the sustainability of the EV.

Then again, much focus continues to be dedicated to the available strategies at the battery end-of-life, which mainly include the following options:

While the architecture of EVs depends upon their specific purposes, all EVs have the need for material circularity. However, as described in Energies 2023, there exist several future challenges for developing advanced technologies for energy storage and EVs, including optimal location and sizing of EV charging stations, benefits maximization of the parking lot owner, maximizing the aggregator profit, minimizing EV charging costs, minimizing the total operating cost of the system, maximize the revenue/social welfare of the grid operator, and the operation of hybrid energy storage systems. Each of these is intertwined with the need to develop essential materials circularity as key to production.


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