The Second Life of Batteries

written by Niccolò Ferrari

The electrification process is drastically shaping the automotive field. The main reasons are often connected to the environment and pollution.

However, the very nature of this change caused OEMs to deal with new challenges. One of them being how to handle batteries during their life cycle.

On electric vehicles, batteries usually have a life of 8-10 years. After a certain number of cycles, the proprieties of such devices get less valuable and, in the end, must be replaced.

However, since these packs are resource intensive to produce and costly to replace, companies are finding ways to recover the most out of the initial investment and reduce waste.

Based on the materials used for the batteries, they can either be recycled or repurposed. The second alternative should be the first one to consider, since it extends the life-cycle of a battery. Note that since the energy consumption required to produce a complete battery pack is high, often higher than the production of a thermal engine, the extension of a battery life is the most relevant factor to offset the environmental impact of production.

When a battery reaches the end of its life in a vehicle, it still retains around 70-80% of its original capacity. For this reason, it could have a second life, simply in a less intense application. One of the main applications that are being investigated is energy storage: for households, but also broader applications for city energy grids. Many automotive manufacturers are investing in this kind of solution, with some of them, such as Tesla, already providing energy storage solutions for private houses. This kind of solution will extend batteries’ life noticeably, more than doubling the life of a pack.

Since new regulations and laws enforce the OEMs to handle used batteries coming from their products, with the objective of reducing waste, every battery, fresh or repurposed, will have to be recycled. Based on the materials contained inside of it, it could also be convenient to recover precious materials for future use. The rising prices of raw materials, such as cobalt, copper and manganese, promote this path even further. The estimated market cap of this market is projected to be well over 30 billion dollars in less than 20 years from here. Battery producers and automotive companies are incentivized in pursuing materials recycling, because the supply chain has become unreliable and inconsistent. By centralising these processes, companies could reduce the impact of this process and gain the greatest advantage with respect to an unpredictable supply that cannot be directly controlled by the OEMs themselves.

In conclusion, the transition to battery powered vehicles does not come without problems and, although the objective is to reduce environmental impact of private and commercial vehicles, the very nature of battery manufacturing has negative aspects that must be faced in order to have a truly green transition to E-Mobility. 

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