What happens when an electric vehicle battery the size of a small dinner table reaches the end of its life?
Thats the question jurisdictions across Canada and the world are grappling with as more and more electric vehicles hit the roads. In B.C., government estimates there will be more than 2.5 million of these vehicles cruising along the provinces roadways by 2040.
With so much focus in B.C. on growing the mining sector and especially supplying minerals for the clean-energy revolution, critics say the province is overlooking the potential economic benefits of extracting materials from used-up electric vehicle batteries materials that dont require the creation of new, environmentally impactful, mines.
There are already more than 60,000 electric vehicles on B.C.s roads. Each car is equipped with a lithium-ion battery and, while the design of those batteries is much the same as the one in your smartphone, electric-vehicle batteries are, by necessity, much bigger. A single car battery can weigh several hundred kilograms and is made up of materials such as manganese, graphite, nickel, cobalt and lithium.
These behemoths of the battery world have an average lifespan of eight to 15 years, which means as the electric-vehicle market continues to grow, there is an important opportunity to rethink the recycling sector.
Its work thats already underway across the continent.
Kunal Phalpher, chief strategy officer at Li-Cycle, a Toronto-based lithium-ion recycling company with four facilities operating and under construction across North America said the more batteries become available, the better the opportunities become for recyclers.
He said its crucial to plan for recycling right at the start of the electric-vehicle growth curve.
In the next eight to 10 years were going through this first wave of rapid growth and rapid increase in demand for these materials where youre still going to need new primary resources (from mines), he said.
But its also the time to build up infrastructure to manage (batteries) at end of life so that we can continue to chip away and increase the percentage of recycled material back into the battery.
Phalpher said he anticipates a sector-wide shift to reusing more materials. EV batteries arent currently produced with recycled minerals because theres not enough supply, he said.
Until the time comes when recycling facilities start receiving large quantities of depleted batteries, the demand for minerals is expected to continue to increase exponentially.
While B.C. is not a source of cobalt, nickel and lithium, it is home to several copper mines and a major aluminum smelter materials commonly used in auto manufacturing.
The basic composition of electric vehicle batteries is projected to remain fairly constant over the coming years, but one mineral found in B.C. is showing promising results in extending the lifespan of lithium-ion batteries.
Tellurium can be mined directly or sourced as a byproduct produced during copper smelting.
In northwest B.C., just south of Smithers, First Telluriums proposed tellurium, silver and gold mine could become a key supplier in the EV battery boom.
First Tellurium points to research in Singapore and Texas where tellurium was added to existing lithium-ion technologies, the results of which extend battery life up to 400 per cent and, in some cases, hold 10 times the charge.
The Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions launched a three-year project in 2021 to research the possibilities of using tellurium to manufacture safer and more-efficient EV batteries.
Extending the range and safety of zero-emission vehicles would help accelerate adoption rates around the world, and support progress towards a sustainable circular economy through raw material recycling, Bentley Allan, associate director of the institute, said in a press release.
The experiment with tellurium is just one example of many projects aimed at reducing demand and increasing efficiency, according to Michael Stanyer and Balakrishnan Venkata with Plug in BC, an electric-vehicle advocacy program run by the Fraser Basin Council.
There are so many other cases that people have been researching and working on in order to reduce the need for these rare metals that are being used, Venkata said, referencing a Surrey-based company called American Manganese, which is working to recover raw materials from spent batteries to produce new ones. Theyre able to get close to 100 per cent recovery of all materials that can be used in the new batteries.
But in anticipation of the rush for electric-vehicle resources in B.C., onlookers are saying the province should be doing much more to ensure the leftover potential in depleted batteries is being mined. And as B.C. positions itself as a supplier of responsible minerals, critics say the province must do more to ensure the mining for clean technology is, itself, clean.
Nikki Skuce, director at Northern Confluence, a responsible mining advocacy organization, sees the repurposing of battery waste streams as a way to potentially mitigate the negative impacts of mines in B.C.
The province needs to really amp up repurposing and recycling and also diminish our consumption, Skuce said.
Skuce, whose organization is part of the B.C. Mining Law Reform Network, has advocated strenuously for changes to B.C.s mining laws, some of which have not been reformed for more than a century. Mining watchdogs and critics became more vocal about flaws in B.C.s mining legislation and regulatory oversight in the wake of the Mount Polley mine spill, one of Canadas largest environmental disasters. In 2014, the tailings dam at the Mount Polley mine in central B.C. failed, releasing 24 million cubic metres of contaminated waste into lakes and waterways, a catastrophic event mining watchdogs say could be repeated elsewhere in the province unless B.C. strengthens its regulations.
Early last year an internal audit from the B.C. Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation found the province still has much work to do in the wake of Mount Polley to ensure its mines, and particularly the tailings ponds that hold mining waste, are safe.
Some positive developments have already come out of advocacy work for cleaner and safer B.C. mines. First Telluriums proposed mine, for example, is one of the first Canadian projects to join the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance, a third-party certification program that rates mines on sustainability and responsibility.
First Tellurium proudly adheres to and supports the principles and rights set out in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and in particular the fundamental proposition of free, prior and informed consent, the company said in an emailed statement about recent developments in the electric-vehicle battery sector.
Yet ongoing concerns with B.C.s mining regulations are part of the reason Skuce and others are encouraging the province to take electric vehicle battery recycling seriously.
Skuce co-authored a recent report for the Pembina Institute that calls on B.C. to work with the federal government and learn from other jurisdictions, such as California, which is already well on its way to supporting battery recycling. The report notes the province is poised to reap the economic rewards from jumping on the recycling bandwagon.
And those benefits could be quite notable.
Once recovered, the mineral components of batteries can be sold and used in numerous applications, including the production of new batteries a practice that could reduce the cost of new EV manufacturing. The extraction and recycling process also drives employment directly from what would otherwise be a waste stream.
A 2020 report published in the journal Sustainability notes recycling is set to become an increasingly robust industry, playing an important role, particularly in local economies.
Recycling is expected to become a significant industry in the future, the report notes, generating billions of dollars in revenue, tax income and jobs, many of which would be in countries and regions that currently do not benefit from battery-related industrial activities.
The report also notes that because transporting used EV batteries can be so expensive, there are strong incentives to localize recycling infrastructure. Whats more, battery recycling is anticipated to lead to a global decrease in the need for rare earth mines.
In addition to creating jobs and economic opportunity, theres another incentive when it comes to finding ways to repurpose spent EV batteries: dangerous waste.
As a means to push forward its plans for increasing the electric vehicle sector to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, B.C. passed legislation in 2019 that requires auto manufacturers to meet provincially mandated EV sales targets. By 2025, 10 per cent of all new light-duty vehicles sold need to be zero-emission vehicles, and that percentage scales up to 30 per cent by 2030 and 100 per cent by 2040.
Weve got really ambitious targets for (electric vehicle) adoption and the early ones have already been surpassed, Skuce said. Were going to start seeing more in the waste stream soon.
She said the province needs to navigate trade regulations and issues of hazardous-waste transport, given electric vehicle batteries have a habit of catching fire or exploding if handled improperly.
In developing a strategy looking ahead, you can see where all of these potential barriers are, and what needs to be shifted for this particular stream and opportunity to ensure that it can be done safely.