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  • Electric vehicles are becoming more and more common with each passing year, and their adoption is only expected to accelerate.

  • Some estimates predict a third of new vehicles sold by the year 2030 will be electric, and that poses something of a delayed problem.

  • What do we do with all the lithium ion batteries that powered those electric vehicles, once they go back?

  • Do we just chuck them in the landfill and make fresh ones?

  • Or is there a way to squeeze more juice out of a used battery?

  • There are a lot of reasons to recycle lithium ion batteries.

  • For starters, they use a variety of raw materials like lithium, manganese, cobalt and nickel.

  • Every kilogram of raw material recovered from them is a kilogram that doesn't need to be extracted from the earth.

  • In countries like Argentina, Bolivia and Chile.

  • Obtaining the lithium needed for the batteries cathode, uses copious amounts of water in some of the driest places on Earth.

  • Other metals typically used in lithium ion batteries come with the usual impacts associated with mining.

  • But there's a terrible dark side to one medal in particular- cobalt.

  • By some estimates, more than 70% of the world's cobalt comes from one place, the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

  • Anybody there can just dig it up and sell it, which has led to armed conflict, unsafe mining practices and the use of child labor.

  • Cutting back on the need for new cobalt can also reduce the human suffering mining it indirectly causes.

  • Recycling batteries also keeps materials out of landfills, eliminating the chance that cobalt, nickel and manganese can contaminate the soil and groundwater.

  • But despite these upsides, as of 2019, fewer than 5% of lithium ion batteries were recycled.

  • That's partly because lithium ion battery recycling faces the same challenges that other recycling operations face, namely being cost competitive with virgin materials.

  • In all the ways extracting lithium and mining cobalt is costly.

  • It's often still cheaper than recycling in terms of dollars and cents.

  • The issue is made even more complicated because of the nature of today's battery industry.

  • There's no standard for how to make a lithium ion cell.

  • Cathodes can be made up of LiCoO​2, or LiNiMnCoO2, or LiNiCoAlO2, or LiFePO4.

  • Because recyclers can't pick and choose which batteries come to their facilities, they often have to use one size fits all solutions.

  • Often that means burning the batteries.

  • Smelting lithium ion batteries recovers the most expensive metals, namely cobalt and nickel, as well as copper.

  • However, lithium, aluminum and organic compounds get burned off, and recyclers have to deal with the toxic fluorine compounds the process creates.

  • Another common recycling method, known as chemical leaching, involves grinding up the batteries and treating them with solvents to recover the cathode medals.

  • Then there's the issue that lithium ion car batteries are not designed with recycling in mind.

  • Lead acid batteries like those in internal combustion vehicles are easily disassembled, and almost all the lead in them can be recycled.

  • But electric vehicle batteries are made of thousands of individual cells that are often glued or welded together with circuitry and sensors in between.

  • Right now, electric vehicle manufacturers are more focused on performance and longevity, and the post lifecycle isn't given much attention.

  • To make recycling easier, battery manufacturers may have to redesign their battery packs so they're more modular and easy to disassemble.

  • Despite these inherent problems, some companies are charging ahead into battery recycling.

  • They're developing new strategies like using robots to automate, sorting, disassembling and recovery of materials.

  • Or they're experimenting with a technique called direct recovery, which keeps the cathodes crystalline structure intact and cuts down on the cost of reusing material.

  • Even if these approaches make recycling batteries cost competitive, investing in lithium ion recycling programs could still be a risky bet.

  • Lithium ion batteries may dominate the market now, but other technologies could take their place.

  • Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles could become more common or a new battery technology like the long theorized lithium air, could make current batteries obsolete.

  • Nobody knows what the future holds, but a few entrepreneurs and nations are seeing a veritable mountain of used batteries on the horizon, and they're determined to turn that trash into treasure.

  • Lithium-ion batteries don't just power electric cars, but phones and laptops, too.

  • To learn more about how these incredible cells actually worked and what may power the future, check out our light-speed playlist here.

  • Thanks so much for watching.

Electric vehicles are becoming more and more common with each passing year, and their adoption is only expected to accelerate.

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