Blog Post by ReLiB’s Angela Eggleton- University of Birmingham
Blog Post: Workshop for the study of “Circular Economy Perspectives for the Management of Batteries used in Electric Vehicles” conducted by Ricardo Energy & Environment and commissioned by the European Commission’s DG Joint Research Centre (JRC)
By Angela Eggleton, University of Birmingham, Faraday ReLib – Legal Team
As thousands of electric vehicles (hereafter ‘EVs’) are expected to roll onto the market globally, efforts are increasingly focused on innovation in the electromobility sector, with less attention given to what happens when these technologies retire. The need for a sustainable infrastructure to accommodate a circular economy for electric vehicles becomes crucial in the face of growing numbers of end of life EV’s and their battery packs. With European targets of reduction in greenhouse gas emissions set from 2020 (progressively) until 2050, under the Eco-design regulations 2009/125/EC environmentalists and governments alike are devising infrastructure to accommodate and minimise the impact waste Li-ion batteries will pose at the end of their life-cycle. In the UK, transport secretary Christopher Grayling plans to halt the sale of conventional petrol and diesel cars by 2040. By 2050 Grayling states that nearly every car and van will be zero emission with the expectation that the change will be consumer and industry led.
Currently, I am conducting research for the ReLiB (Reuse and Recycling of Lithium Ion Batteries) project with the Faraday Institution, the Faraday Institution being the UK’s independent institute for electrochemical energy storage science and technology. The ReLiB project has been initiated with the aim of the development and production of new methods for recycling and reuse of battery materials. The aim is to produce technologies which are environmentally sustainable, and economically viable proven at scale prior to their introduction to the market. In conjunction with this, the project aims to create a suitable infrastructure of policy, law and economics in order to support new technologies. My current findings from the legal research undertaken has focused on the gaps in regulation in relation to Li-ion batteries; these have been affirmed after correlating with the conclusions of Ricardo and the JRC whose findings were presented at their opening event on circular economy perspectives in Brussels. Ricardo have taken an interdisciplinary approach to solving the problem of creating a circular economy for electric vehicle batteries by attempting to address some of the key issues, most of which I have encountered during my research at the University if Birmingham. The report, combining a factual base alongside techno-economic analysis to address six key issues, attempts to propose a blueprint for a circular-economy for Lithium-Ion Batteries. As part of the legal team my interests lie in devising regulatory frameworks that fill in the gaps which current regulation fails to address.
One of the issues both my research and attendance at the Brussels event affirmed is the lack of regulation concerning the standardisation of labelling on battery packs. The main issue here is at the end of the life cycle, when the battery is ready to be re-cycled there are issues with varying battery chemistries that need particular treatment to recover both raw materials for re-use and the disposal of waste materials. As battery chemistries differ throughout manufacturing processes, batteries require different methods of recycling. Moreover, the current approach to re-cycling is problematic due to a multiplicity of factors such as safety; cost; safe transportation; and the need for sufficient equipment to gateway test the battery in order to know how best to recycle and/or reuse it. A streamlined approach driven by standard setting would help ameliorate these problems and would support a circular economy approach. Therefore, the creation of a linear set of standards in relation to the chemistry composition of the batteries enables standardisation in characterisation and recycling processes that can be universally adopted, thus facilitating reduction in cost and time for consideration of safety and testing. However, competition has become a barrier to streamlining the process due to the unique composition of each battery as manufacturers strive for increased performance.
A further issue discussed in the report is the increasing concern over the negative effects of using a Lithium based chemistry in the EV battery. For example, in most lithium-based chemistries there is a potential for HF (hydrogen fluoride) gas to be released via thermal runaway if damage occurs to the cell. The effects of HF can be fatal if inhaled. Furthermore, due to the shortcomings of current regulation, re-purposing batteries has become a particular issue. The emergence of home storage use of Li-ion batteries is on the increase with consumers hiring, buying and taking out batteries from their old EVs and using it in their home as a storage facility. Most individuals fail to appreciate the hazards involved with Li-ion batteries. For example, if the cell’s outer shell is pierced there is a high potential for the cell to explode and ignite producing dangerous HF gas. The way the battery is stored is a key factor for the maintenance of battery health. Currently, the regulatory framework does not directly address these issues. One way of forwarding a circular economy in order to incentivise extended producer responsibility in the re-cycling of end of life batteries is the emergence of Blockchain technologies. Blockchain technology, in brief, is a de-centralized digital ledger used to track and record transactions on a database. Blockchain technology would not only provide accountability of any manufacturer’s responsibility to re-cycle but it will also create a degree of transparency that would allow for the battery to be traced throughout its lifecycle including its end of life phase. A way of incentivising manufacturers to take back consumer EVs to re-cycle the parts, including the battery would be the suggestion of a tax or a regulatory framework requiring the manufacturers to have a duty to take back the battery to re-cycle. Thereby, enabling a way of tracking the battery pack throughout its life cycle.
One problem in particular is a lack of clarity in regulation and standards concerning re-purposing of Li-ion batteries highlighted by RECHARGE. This also encompasses the ambiguity within the interpretation of the Battery Directive 2006 whereby a vehicle manufacturer is regarded as a battery producer if the manufacturer places the battery on the market even if that vehicle manufacturer merely imports EV battery cells. Therefore, there is currently no provision within the regulatory framework to distinguish whether the vehicle manufacturer is solely a manufacturer or battery producer. The difficulty facing European vehicle manufacturers is to ensure the most sustainable approaches to cell manufacturing and responsible custody of cells at the end of their life cycle. Therefore, the Faraday Institution’s ReLiB project legal research team, situated at the University of Birmingham are attempting to address these issues.
In conclusion, there are still many regulatory gaps that need to be addressed in the near future. The introduction of lithium-ion battery powered vehicles could have many repercussions which legal scholars, government and regulators are still on the cusp of considering. At present, with industry focused on the introduction of new vehicles, debate is only now turning to the creation of a suitable infrastructure to accommodate for the disposal of batteries from these vehicles. As part of this, due to the current inadequate regulatory framework, policy makers need to begin work on legislating for the management of lithium-ion batteries operationally and at the end of life.