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What’s so hard about building a circular battery economy?

From design to disassembly, lithium-ion batteries pose unique challenges to setting up a successful battery recycling system.

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AI-generated image credit: Gold Flamingo

AI-generated image credit: Gold Flamingo

Editor’s note: This is part five of a five-part feature series on global battery supply chains. The reporting borrows from a new season of The Big Switch called “The Great Battery Boom,” produced by Columbia’s Center on Global Energy Policy and Latitude Studios. Listen to the final episode below, or find the show anywhere you get your podcasts.

Batteries are essential to the energy transition. But to make the quantity of batteries we need to hit our net-zero goals, we need to increase global production of critical minerals like lithium, copper, and nickel sixfold by 2040, according to the International Energy Agency. 

The demand far outweighs the supply.  

“We just don't have enough minerals, and it takes a long time to develop them,” said Tom Moerenhout, a research scholar at the Columbia Center on Global Energy Policy. 

Linda Gaines, a material flows researcher at Argonne National Laboratory, says the combination of a nascent battery recycling industry and unfettered global economic growth is contributing to the problem.

“We have a finite planet," Gaines said. "If we can't supply all of the material [for lithium-ion batteries] with recycled material, then we need new material. But you can't just keep using everything up. So the concept of circularity is fine in and of itself, but it's inconsistent with growth.”

Investors are funneling billions of dollars into the burgeoning lithium-ion battery recycling industry in the U.S. in the hopes of building circularity into supply chains.

Battery recycling facilities have been popping up across the United States, from Alabama to Nevada. By the end of the decade, more than 15 plants across the country will be recycling more than 652,000 metric tons of EV battery material, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation. And that’s just a fraction of the global capacity of 1 million metric tons, led by factories in Asia, that the consultancy Circular Energy Storage has tracked.  

But a circular battery economy is still a long way off. The IEA projects that by 2040, recycling might reduce the need for mining battery metals by just 10%. Large volumes of end-of-life EV battery packs — the major feedstock for the industry — won’t start rolling into recycling plants for another decade. 

“The last few years, there's definitely been a lot of attention building up on battery recycling,” said Sarah Colbourn, acting head of sustainability at Benchmark Mineral Intelligence. But overall, she added, “the lithium ion battery recycling market is very much in its infancy." 

Building the perfect battery

Battery design is part of the problem. 

“One technological piece that's missing is the efficient way to take the battery back apart,” Gaines said. “Everybody's got their own cell size and shape, so that means that taking things apart is actually quite complicated now.”

Designing batteries for circularity could change that. Sustainability advocates say circular design allows products to be more easily repaired or disassembled for what’s called direct recycling. But Gaines said circular design is “pretty much missing so far in the battery industry.”

Instead, most lithium-ion batteries continue to be recycled via a conventional process called pyrometallurgy which isolates expensive metals like cobalt, nickel, and copper through melting. Hydrometallurgy, which uses an aqueous process to separate out those minerals as well as lithium and manganese, has also been gaining traction in the industry. 

In both approaches, the recycling process starts by shredding the batteries into a fine powder called black mass, which combines the anode and cathode materials. In direct recycling, battery components are recovered without mixing them, making refurbishing them for use in a new battery more straightforward, Gaines said. 

So why isn’t direct recycling taking off? 

Gaines says it comes down to the way battery cells are constructed and assembled into modules and packs, a process that makes disassembly exceptionally difficult. And, unlike gas-powered starter batteries, EV batteries lack design standardization.

Gaines thinks a more fundamental issue is that battery manufacturers are not in sync with recyclers. In 2023, Gaines gave a design-focused talk at an industry conference. Of the 250 people in attendance, none was a cell producer. 

“Manufacturers are not, as far as I know, really participating in the discussion,” around how to make batteries for disassembly, she said.

Building urban mines

When electric vehicles arrive at local dismantlers to be crushed and recycled, each comes with a different battery pack, making efficient urban mining — a term industrial players use to refer to pulling metals out of spent batteries instead of the ground — complicated.

“We have access to the OEM manuals that tell you how to remove the battery where the high energy system is within the car,” said Tom Novak, vice president of business development for Radius Recycling, which owns a chain of auto dismantlers called Pick-n-Pull. But without any information on why an EV ended up at one of his dismantlers in the first place, he added, “you really don’t know what you’re getting." 

That lack of insight into the health of EV batteries makes them difficult to resell to Pick-n-Pull customers. As a result, most battery packs are sold into the recycling market, a process that comes with its own complexities.

To ready the huge packs for shipping, Novak sometimes needs to order special pallets and crates. Custom-ordering and shipping a single crate to a Pick-n-Pull can cost Novak upwards of $1,000. In addition, Department of Transportation regulations make shipping multiple packs difficult, so they often arrive at recycling partners or intermediaries one at a time, adding to the cost.

Establishing efficiencies for receiving, processing, and shipping spent batteries is  essential. “Otherwise, [as a dismantler], you're going to lose all the money that you put into buying an EV,” Novak said.

Changing chemistries

But even with procedural efficiencies in place, the economics of battery recycling will continue to change with changing battery chemistries.  

In addition to being faster to charge, sodium-ion batteries are cheaper to make, and at least one Chinese automaker is now using them. But because they don’t contain nickel, cobalt, or lithium, they have less residual value at the end of their lives. That would likely translate to lower value for auto dismantlers, based on what Novak is already seeing in terms of low prices that lithium manganese oxide (LMO) and lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries — neither of which contain cobalt or nickel —  fetch today. 

Currently, recyclers typically charge Pick-n-Pull to take end-of-life LMO and LFP batteries, which are used in some hybrids and EVs. (Pick-n-Pull sells these for second use applications if they have not yet reached the end of their useful lives.) Novak wonders what happens if automakers move significantly toward sodium-ion batteries — as some Chinese companies are already doing — and “engineer all the value out of it” in the process.

In a young EV market, standardization around battery design and chemistry may not happen for years, if at all. That means large-scale EV battery recycling remains unchartered territory.

“We’ve got to be really careful how we move forward in this new EV world,” said Novak. “Because we don't know where the market's going or how it's going to evolve.”

Want to dig in further? Listen to the final episode of “The Great Battery Boom” with Dr. Melissa Lott, as she explores the complexity of battery supply chains, from mining to manufacturing.

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Melissa Lott: Last time on The Big Switch…

Sam Jaffe: A modern battery factory is all robotics. There's very few people on the factory floor and it looks like a ballet is going on.

Keith Hoge: Right around the corner here, we'll get you your safety goggles and your vest, and then we'll start from the beginning of the process.

Nora Eckert: Some of these sites are as large as 60 football fields, so they're really massive.

Sam Jaffe: We're seeing a battery belt happen down through the Midwest and even lower into Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina.

Nora Eckert: The EV transition is in the background of every union discussion right now.

Sanya Carley: We picked up such strong sentiments of distrust, distrust that they will be able to buy an electric vehicle themselves, but also a very deep distrust that they will be included in the transition as an employee.

Sam Jaffe: The best-case scenario is that the IRA works and we end up with a domestic battery and electric vehicle and stationary storage industry that is self-supporting.

Melissa Lott: If you go 20 minutes east of Sacramento, there's this place where old cars go to die.

Tom Novak: This is what we call kind of the crush pad and where we get the car ready to be flattened and sent to a shredder.

Melissa Lott: Our producer, Mary Catherine O'Connor, is in Rancho Cordova, California at something called a Pick-n-Pull. If you've never been to one of these places, it's like a field full of old cars where people come to find used parts. It's a bit of a trash-to-treasure type situation.

She's there with Tom Novak, Vice President of Business Development for Radius Recycling, which owns Pick-n-Pull.

Tom Novak: We're what you would call self-service auto dismantlers. We have 50, 51 Pick-n-Pulls, and then another 50-plus metal recycling yards.

Melissa Lott: A lot of people would call this place a junkyard, but it's more like a reuse and recycling center, and that goes for everything from the headlights to the tailpipe, or in the case of an electric vehicle, the headlights to the battery pack.

Tom Novak: That's a Tesla model S.

MC O'Connor: Wow, that is really big.

Tom Novak: Yes, 1500 pounds.

Melissa Lott: We're seeing more and more of these electric vehicles making their way into scrap yards around the country, which makes a lot of sense given that the first Teslas hit the streets in 2008 and the Nissan Leaf hit the streets in 2010. Depending on a lot of different things like how much you drive and how you charge your battery, it could take somewhere around 10 to 15 years for the batteries in your car to start failing and making their way into a junkyard.

Tom Novak: The battery is now down and we have some straps that we'll put it onto the proper pallet and we'll get it ready to ship to a battery recycler.

Melissa Lott: And we don't know who yet.

Tom Novak: We don't know who. Price driven. Price driven.

Melissa Lott: Who's in the market for a used lithium-ion battery pack? The answer is actually quite a few folks. That EV battery pack might be headed east on Highway 80 down to Carson City, Nevada. That's where Redwood Materials recycled enough batteries in 2022 to power 100,000 electric vehicles.

But there's a lot of new recycling plants that are popping up in the Southeastern U.S., a place that's quickly becoming known as the battery belt. Either way, scrap yards and Pick-n-Pulls like the one in Rancho Cordova are step one of EV battery recycling. Step two, well, that's turning all those salvaged lithium-ion batteries into new ones. But today the vast majority of vehicles on the U.S. roads are still running on gas and diesel, and so building lots of battery recycling plants across the country can feel a bit premature.

Tom Frey: A lot of people think, why are you building all these electric vehicle plants now? It's going to be 15 years before there's a real huge amount of EV batteries to recycle. What they're not thinking about is all the manufacturing scrap that's available today to be recycled.

Melissa Lott: As we've said this whole season, to hit our net-zero goals, we're going to need to electrify a lot of stuff. That means manufacturing a lot of batteries, and to get to a completely circular system for those batteries, recycling is a critical step.

Tom Frey: For every gigafactory to make batteries, you need to also have a recycling factory to recycle those batteries.

Melissa Lott: But it's not just a matter of building out our recycling infrastructure. We also need to do some reprioritizing.

Linda Gaines: One of the statements that I'd like to make that people don't like very much is that growth is not sustainable. We have a finite planet. If we can't supply all of the material with recycled material, then we need new material, but you can't just keep using everything up. So the concept of circularity is fine in and of itself, but is inconsistent with growth.

Melissa Lott: This is The Big Switch. I'm Dr. Melissa Lott and I'm the director of research at Columbia University's SIPA Center on Global Energy Policy, and I study the technologies and systems that power our world.

This season we're digging into batteries. From cars and heavy equipment to the electric grid, they're finding their way into everything around us, but scaling up battery production to meet the demands of a net-zero economy is complicated and contentious. In a complex battery supply chain, we're asking what gets mined, traded, and consumed on the road to decarbonization.

This is the final installment in our five-part series. So far this season, we've traced the global lithium-ion battery supply chain from mining to processing to manufacturing, and we put it all in context with today's geopolitics. In this episode, we've come to the end of the road for a battery. We learn how battery recyclers are evolving into battery component manufacturers, and we ask how all the partners in the battery recycling ecosystem are navigating the complexities of turning dead batteries into new ones.

Mike O'Kronley: If you think about what you probably did this week is you put something into the recycling bin, that's actually not really recycling.

Melissa Lott: Mike O'Kronley is the CEO of Ascend Elements, a lithium-ion battery recycler and material manufacturer.

Mike O'Kronley: Recycling is a supply chain, so you take that battery, you begin to process it, discharge it, crush it, shred it up, that it's no longer a battery. You're really going after the constituent materials that are in that battery. So to me, that's recycling.

Melissa Lott: Mike has worked in the battery sector for over a decade, and for him the success of recycling comes down to one thing, efficiency.

Mike O'Kronley: The industry and where it's going and what makes this all economic is how efficiently are you able to take in batteries, process them, and return them back to the supply chain in a very, very efficient way? And so that's really where technology comes in.

Melissa Lott: At the newly opened Ascend Elements plant just east of Atlanta, Tom Frey says the technology and efficiency are front and center and EV batteries are the focus.

Tom Frey: It takes thousands and thousands of cell phones to equal one electric vehicle battery, so it's much more efficient to focus on the electric vehicle batteries.

Melissa Lott: Tom is senior director at Ascend Elements, which runs one of the largest lithium-ion battery recycling plants in the United States, and he's taking our producer, Daniel Waldorf, on a tour.

Tom Frey: All these big shelves looks a little bit like the warehouse in Indiana Jones Raiders of the Lost Ark. Everything you see are lithium-ion battery packs waiting to be shredded.

Melissa Lott: Remember that electric vehicle battery that got pulled at the Rancho Cordova Pick-n-Pull back in California? Well, similar EV batteries pulled from cars back east get shipped to recycling facilities like the Ascend Elements plant. These facilities also gather up scrap materials from companies that make new EV batteries, the same batteries that we use in the growing electric vehicle fleet. Most of what recyclers get now is scrap from new battery manufacturing, but as more and more EV batteries reach the end of life in the coming years, these plants will get more used battery packs to recycle.

Tom Frey: You see here how the battery packs come to us in a crate. There's a lot of packaging that goes along with shipping these batteries because when they're in their battery form as an end-of-life battery, they're considered hazardous. That's why you'll see recycling facilities like this dispersed around the United States, because you want these facilities to be as close to the source of the end-of-life batteries as possible because you want to minimize the distance that you have to ship these things.

Melissa Lott: You've probably heard stories of lithium-ion batteries exploding.

News clip: Officials in Seminole County say a lithium battery thrown in the trash is what sparked a fire that did almost half a million dollars in damage. Now, that fire broke out-

News clip: Those batteries causing more than 200 fires in New York City alone last year injuring 147 people and killing six.

Melissa Lott: Remember back in episode one where Dan Steingart and Bret Schumacher took apart a lithium-ion battery? One of the main focus areas for their research is figuring out how to make batteries safer.

Dan Steingart: We don't want batteries to be bombs, so the question is how do we have a battery that gets us a 300-mile range that can be charged in five minutes that has zero danger of exploding? That's probably impossible completely, but understanding how and why they explode is something really important and tragically understudied.

Melissa Lott: At the Rancho Cordova Pick-n-Pull, Tom Novak knows firsthand that removing battery packs from scrap cars can be risky.

Tom Novak: I mean, we have a thermal camera up there to monitor this area just in case there was, God forbid, a thermal event.

Melissa Lott: But once those batteries are safely removed from junked cars and then safely packaged for shipping and then safely delivered to recycling plants like Ascend Elements, they're still a long way from becoming new lithium-ion batteries. They have to be taken apart, shredded, pounded, and pulverized to get to the key ingredients inside. Again, here's Tom Frey.

Tom Frey: What we're after is what's called black mass, which is this black powder that contains the anode and the cathode material from the battery. The anode is usually graphite, and the cathode is an engineered particle that contains lithium and nickel and manganese and cobalt, but essentially it's a raw material. You can't take that black mass and pour that into a box and make a battery. It needs to go through an engineering process in order to become ready for a new battery.

At this facility, we produce the black mass, and then what we do is we ship that material to one of our other facilities. Soon it will be our facility in Kentucky that we're building where we will transform that black mass into new sustainable customized cathode material.

Melissa Lott: But getting to that black mass is a process. Back on the plant floor, Tom Frey explains this further.

Tom Frey: You'll see here on the right-hand side, that's what we call our dry shredding line. That's where we shred the battery manufacturing scrap. Over here is our bigger and more elaborate line, which is called our wet shredding line, and that is the line that we use to recycle end-of-life batteries. When we call it wet shred, that's because it has been in contact with electrolyte, which makes the material wet on the inside.

There are various types of shredding that happen throughout the process, some of it with teeth, some of them in what we call hammer mills. Yeah, it's a mechanical shredding process. It's kind of like an industrial paper shredder. Yeah, you can hear the battery kind of rolling around in there like thee shoes in the washing machine or the dryer.

Melissa Lott: By turning all that black mass into cathode materials, Ascend is starting to own more of the battery supply chain, and they're not alone. As just a few examples, we've seen Redwood Materials turning used batteries into cathode and anode materials, which they plan to sell to Toyota. In February of 2023, they received a $2 billion loan commitment from the Department of Energy, and now they're building a new plant in South Carolina.

Another example is the Canadian recycler Li-Cycle, which is building a U.S. plant to convert lithium from used batteries into lithium carbonate for new ones. This company received a $375 million loan from the U.S. Department of Energy. And in late 2022, Ascend Elements announced that they had received $480 million in DOE grants. The agency is doling out a ton of cash thanks to the bipartisan infrastructure law and the Inflation Reduction Act, and Ascend raised more than 400 million in private investment to complement that grant for the DOE. Redwood Materials, well, they raised more than a billion dollars in private investment. That's billion with a B.

The goal for these companies is to mine battery metals that are left over when batteries are made in the first place, so-called scrap materials, while also recovering the valuable materials that are in lithium-ion batteries that have reached their end of life, whether that's from millions of phones and laptops or huge EV battery packs. I asked Ascend Elements CEO, Mike O'Kronley, how policy is supporting the growth of battery recycling.

Mike O'Kronley: I would say the policies that now exist in the U.S. are very, very favorable to really growing the lithium-ion battery industry. As a result of the IRA, there's a credit for any consumer that would like to buy an EV. It's around $7,500. Well, in order for that consumer to get that credit, two things have to happen. One, the battery needs to be made in the United States or with a free trade partner. And number two, the materials that go into that battery also need to be made in the United States and/or a free trade partner.

That's really dramatically improved the demand of recycled batteries and recycled battery materials. And so in any business, if you're somehow able to improve policy or legislation that improves the demand of your output product, that's really going to drive a lot of the economics behind it because now you are essentially accelerating a market.

Melissa Lott: What do you think of this framing as battery recyclers as urban miners? Does that resonate with you?

Mike O'Kronley: Urban mining is definitely a term that I think is appropriate for what we're doing. When you go back and you're able to pull back materials from the market, not from the ground, but from the market and reuse those, that's effectively your urban mine. That's where we get our materials from as feedstock.

Melissa Lott: Making sure that we shift from mining metals out of the ground to mining them from end-of-life batteries is really important because it promises to reduce the harms that mining and processing cause, like to ecosystems and frontline communities, the kind of harms that we dug into in episode two and three of this season. But Mike also offered an important reminder, that recycling has a key advantage over extracting raw minerals. It also leads to a lot less carbon emissions.

Mike O'Kronley: The lithium-ion batteries, the way we make them today are very carbon intensive. We want to lower the CO₂ emissions, but the key enabling technology that is enabling this energy transition, very carbon intensive. So if we look at it as an industry, how do we do this better? We've got to be able to reuse these materials over. When you look at the CO₂ footprint that's associated with the materials we make, we drop the CO₂ footprint by around 90%. It's very, very dramatic. It's something that we have to do as an industry to make these batteries cleaner, lower CO₂ footprint.

Melissa Lott: Recycling is a really hopeful part of the lithium-ion battery supply chain. Policymakers view it as a powerful lever to increase domestic supply, and economic development experts point to the promise it holds for the manufacturing sector. And if you're in an environmental group, well, you might say that we should focus more on recycling and less on mining, but how close are we to this circular supply chain where urban mining displaces conventional mining? I posed this question to Linda Gaines who studies material flows at Argonne National Laboratory.

Linda Gaines: Unfortunately, it's going to be quite a while because the main problem here is growth. Even if we could recover all of the material that was generated, let's say, 10 years ago, the amount of material is so much lower than the current demand that it would still be sort of a drop in the bucket. It's not until demand flattens out sometime in the future that we could even imagine getting most of the material back from recycling.

Melissa Lott: Which brings me to one of my favorite buzzwords at the moment, which is circularity, and the idea of when it comes to these batteries that we're using in the energy transition in electric vehicles and other systems, what is circularity? What does it look like, and when might it be possible to get to that stage given all the growth we're looking at?

Linda Gaines: Yeah, you just hit on sort of a key point that I think the proponents of circularity ignore. It's great for any one product to be circular, and you can certainly imagine that any battery can be completely circular, but if you pull one battery out of service and recycle it, you get one battery, unless we start using less material per battery, which is another direction that I'd like to go in.

Melissa Lott: One of my friends, he's a professor here at Columbia, Dan Steingart, he talks a lot about how yes, we have growth, we should think about material substitutions, material efficiency, all that, but there's almost certainly going to be growth in the use of certain things.

And so if we think about growth and if we do the next 20 years, 30 years right, it grows into that point and then we've achieved circularity. We have achieved a place where we aren't having to pull any more raw things out of the ground because we've created that process of keeping those materials and circulation so well that we grow, grow, grow but only for a short period of time.

But to do that takes a lot of effort and a lot of different people moving together to get the system going. I wonder what you think in terms of, if you had to say the top three barriers to achieving circularity in this process, what would those three be?

Linda Gaines: One technological piece that's missing is the efficient way to take the battery back apart, and that would require either incredibly good robotic technology or else or in addition to design for recycling, which is something that's pretty much missing so far in the battery industry. Everybody's got their own cell size and shape, and then the modules are different sizes and shapes and the packs are different and the chemistry inside is different. That means that actually taking things back apart is quite complicated now.

Another problem with circularity is that it kind of implies a static technology. If you've got technology evolving, it may not be that easy to be completely circular. And a very large barrier is politics and people. If you think about, for instance, we are shipping a lot of batteries both in cell phones and computers and as batteries themselves overseas at the end of their lives, if they're going to be reused efficiently elsewhere and then recycled elsewhere so that we then have to re-import more material, is that the best thing for the planet? Maybe. Is it the best thing for the U.S. in the position of having to import more material?

Melissa Lott: There's a great deal of progress and innovation being made in battery recycling and much more on the horizon, but standing up a robust, efficient, and circular battery supply chain is largely a matter of geopolitics. In the U.S. there's a lot of focus on how we can incentivize battery recyclers to keep those metals here.

Tom Frey: The United States needs this infrastructure here in the United States so we can do this in America. We don't want to have all this electric battery material coming to America. It's harvested, mined somewhere else, generally processed somewhere else, comes to America as a form of an EV battery. We don't want to let go of it and let that material go back out into the rest of the world. We want to keep as much of it here domestically as we can because it's such a precious material.

We're losing those valuable metals. America is losing those metals. So part of our business plan is to do all of the processing here domestically, shredding the batteries and making cathode material in the United States.

Melissa Lott: Here's what we know. We know that the ecosystem of lithium-ion battery recyclers in the U.S. is growing really fast, thanks largely to government incentives paired with private investment. The goal is to support domestic battery sourcing and production because recyclers are increasingly also making battery components.

But because the demand for battery metals is so massive, it's going to be a long time before recycling makes an appreciable dent in the need for mining. The International Energy Agency projects that by 2040 recycling might cut the need for mining battery metals by just 10%. Other studies have more optimistic forecasts, but those rely on lower demand for minerals by making smaller cars and using more public transit.

To be more circular, the lithium-ion battery needs to follow the example of a different industry, lead-acid batteries. If you look around for lead-acid batteries, you're going to find them in golf carts, cars, forklifts, and backup power systems. They're a mature industry. And those batteries, they're commonly made up of 95% recycled materials.

That sounds like a great model for lithium-ion batteries, right? But as we learned from Eric Frederickson, who's the vice president of operations at Call2Recycle, it's more complex than that. Call2Recycle is an end-of-life battery collection service that's funded by product and battery manufacturers, including Sony and Panasonic.

Eric Frederickson: There is enough value elemental lead in a lead-acid battery to pay for every step in the transportation of that battery, to pay for the logistics, and to pay for the recycling, and then net that out with the value of the lead. That's an economically self-driving industry. If you set a lead-acid battery on a curb, it will recycle itself.

There have been people saying for quite a while that the lithium-ion battery space has to figure out how to follow the lead-acid model. Anyone who says that doesn't have a good understanding of the processes and complexity and cost associated with lithium-ion battery recycling.

There is not enough nickel or cobalt or lithium in a lithium-ion battery to cover the transportation and collection and aggregation costs of recycling. Even if the value of the materials in the battery goes up, there's only so much that material can go up in value before it starts to present a headwind to adoption because that will also push up the cost of a new battery and a new electric vehicle.

Melissa Lott: It's not just a matter of time before electric vehicle batteries can be recycled as easily as lead-acid batteries. They're fundamentally different. And as Linda said, the lack of standardization adds complexity. Back at the Pick-n-Pull, where that lithium-ion battery pack got removed, Tom Novak offered a better analogy for EV battery recycling.

Tom Novak: This business is going to be very much like the catalytic converter business because within a catalytic converter, each one's different. And just like in a catalytic converter, what's in a Ford Taurus is going to be different than what's in a Toyota Prius, and the amount of platinum, palladium, and radium. So there's all variability in pricing for different cats.

Melissa Lott: The car industry has changed a lot in recent years, and that has meant a lot of changes in the recycling industry. Eric Frederickson says that batteries in electric vehicles are a part of that ongoing evolution.

Eric Frederickson: The more complex a vehicle gets at end of life, the more skill is required in handling it and managing it. That's been the case of cars have turned into computers on wheels. The day of the shadetree mechanic and the sole proprietor auto recycler are really starting to go away. It requires a great degree of skill and technical prowess, not only to work on an electric vehicle, but to recycle it.

It's likely that there will be some concentration in the auto recycling market, but I think it is fair to say that electric vehicles are going to be recycled in the same pathways that recycle internal combustion engine vehicle. They require collection, they require dismantling, they require logistics and transportation, and ultimately they require metals recovery.

What's going to be different are the cost economics, because right now, an internal combustion engine vehicle is an asset where most electric vehicles are liabilities. So net the value of the electric vehicle, the battery, everything that's in it is not enough to cover the cost of the handling, logistics, the dismantling associated with it.

Melissa Lott: When you get rid of your car, there is a profitable industry that takes responsibility for the components inside of it. And that's because we've had many, many decades to perfect this process and also develop efficient supply chains. The modern battery supply chain, well, it's still a work in progress.

Even if we weren't facing the monumental challenge of mining, refining, and manufacturing enough lithium-ion batteries to meet demand, battery recycling would still be essential. Without it, companies like Pick-n-Pull would face an even bigger challenge, mountains of hazardous used batteries with nowhere to go.

If we want to get the lithium-ion battery supply chain right, then nothing can be wasted. There are a lot of technical innovations that are on the horizon when it comes to battery recycling, but are we anywhere close to making the battery economy actually circular? Linda Gaines said no earlier, and Tom Moerenhout agrees.

Tom Moerenhout: The short answer is no. By 2030, we're expecting to recycle about 5% of our demand met by recycling. So it's not that much, right?

Melissa Lott: Tom is a research scholar at SIPA Center on Global Energy Policy, and he's been a familiar voice in this season. Toward the end of one of our big picture conversations, Tom mentioned another critical piece of the circular battery economy. Specifically he said that he'd like to see us using batteries as efficiently as possible, like in transportation and on the power grid so that we can reduce the total amount of minerals that we need. And this means optimizing everything that's around those batteries.

Tom Moerenhout: Battery size matters and people don't want to talk about it. If you have a Tesla Cybertruck, I'm a science fiction fan, I think that truck looks amazing.

Melissa Lott: Super cool, right?

Tom Moerenhout: It looks really cool.

Melissa Lott: Really cool.

Tom Moerenhout: It also stores a battery the size of which can basically power five other normal electric vehicles. When you drive, let's say between 30 and 40 miles per day, which is about the average mileage that people drive in the United States per day, you have a lot of time that those minerals there, they just go unutilized. That battery sits there. And that's a terrible thing.

If we would drive smaller cars with smaller batteries, and I know that's a risky thing to say, or if we reevaluate the role of plug-in hybrids, which can also have smaller batteries, and that can include safeguards to make sure that people actually drive electric rather than on the internal combustion engine part, if you reevaluate the rules of that and you support that from a policy perspective, you can lower the amount of minerals we need to have that battery transition. And I think that is something that we currently don't talk about at all, and it's a pity.

Melissa Lott: When you think about battery supply chains in, let's go with 2030, so not that long from now, what are you most worried about?

Tom Moerenhout: Basically tight markets for minerals and components. Right now, we are on track for EVs, which is actually a huge thing because we're not on track for that many things, but we are on track for electric vehicles. But markets for minerals are struggling at the same time that this cost reduction of batteries through technological improvements is kind of stagnating. And that's not a bad thing. It means that we've gone a very long way in improving that technology.

But now what matters the most for the cost of a battery is the inputs, so the minerals, the material, and so forth. And we just don't have enough minerals and it takes a long time to develop them. If we have those tight markets, what it means is that battery prices are going to reduce less than we hope for, and as a result, we will see less adoption of batteries and electric vehicles.

Melissa Lott: As we've heard over the last five episodes, we are witnessing the dawn of a very powerful battery economy, one that is already reshaping how we make our cars, how we choose to electrify our homes, how countries will trade with each other, how we manage our land, and how people make a living. There are a lot of pieces to get right from mining to manufacturing to recycling.

Jason Bordoff: Clean energy transition is going to have risks of environmental consequences on local communities, indigenous communities. We will need more mining to be clear, but there are a lot of ways to think about how to reduce how big that growth needs to be.

Melissa Lott: And as Columbia's Jason Bordoff explains, the stakes are really high, and the answers to how we build an integrated, secure, and equitable battery economy will not come from any one company or any one country.

Jason Bordoff: We won't be able to do all of this domestically. That's an important point to make. Who the winners and losers are in this clean energy transition in the decades to come if we're not really careful and thoughtful about how to manage that is going to make it much harder to have a clean energy transition.

Melissa Lott: The Big Switch is produced by Columbia University's SIPA Center on Global Energy Policy in partnership with Latitude Studios.

That brings us to the end of this season on battery supply chains. Thank you so much for following along. If you appreciate the reporting and storytelling we're doing here, you can rate and review the show at Apple and Spotify. You can also send a link to a colleague or a friend who you think would like it, and you can find all of our back episodes along with this current season wherever you get your pods.

The show is produced by Daniel Waldorf, Mary Catherine O'Connor, Anne Bailey, and Stephen Lacey. Anne Bailey is our senior editor, and Sean Marquand wrote our theme song and mixed the episodes. A special thanks to our Columbia team, Harry Kennard, Natalie Volk, Kyu Lee, Jen Wu, and Liz Smith. And thanks to Tom Moerenhout for fact checking. The show is hosted by me, Dr. Melissa Lott. Thank you so much for listening.

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