ACT 101: EV Battery Sourcing and Lifecycle

July 1, 2020

ACT 101 is a series of articles breaking down the basics of clean fuels, transportation technologies, funding programs, and other emerging trends.

Electric vehicles (EVs) are a critical component to the advancement of a cleaner transportation system. As EV adoption continues to grow, it is vital to fully understand both the sourcing and lifecycle of EV batteries.

There is increasing demand for zero emission EVs among both the passenger and fleet sectors due to growing concerns about air quality and climate change. For public and private fleets, the total cost of ownership of EVs is becoming more attractive as government incentives help offset the higher capital costs of both vehicles and charging infrastructure. As the cost of EV battery production continues to decrease, EV adoption, especially by the commercial transportation sector, is only expected to increase.

There is increasing demand for zero emission EVs among both the passenger and fleet sectors due to growing concerns about air quality and climate change.

While the current COVID-19 pandemic is leading to temporary uncertainty in economies and markets worldwide, climate protection considerations remain strong and more pressing than ever. Many major companies have promised that they will not move away from their long-term sustainability strategies and targets. Over the long run, EV adoption and renewable energy markets are expected to continue on a path of growth. While cost is certainly a key factor, the overall sustainability of the physical batteries used to power zero emission electric vehicles must also be taken into consideration. The sustainability of vehicle batteries continues to evolve as companies and fleets begin to consider the entire battery lifecycle— from sourcing to end-of-use. ­­

EV Battery Basics – Components and Chemical Distinctions

The basic structure of an EV battery consists of a negatively-charged anode, a positively-charged cathode, a separator between the anode and cathode, and an electrolyte which facilitates the flow of ions between the cathode and the anode. When a battery is charging, electrons accumulate at the cathode. These electrons move to the anode when the battery is discharging, or in use.

As EV adoption continues to grow, it is vital to fully understand both the sourcing and lifecycle of EV batteries.

The anode usually consists of graphite. The cathode material varies more frequently and consists of a mixed-metal oxide that often contains nickel and cobalt. The electrolyte may be comprised of several materials. A common electrolyte material today is lithium ion, which facilitates the transfer of electrons and energy from the cathode to the anode that will power the vehicle.

Different battery applications, such as a passenger car versus an electric bus, require different battery technologies. Variations in the types and blends of cathode chemistries lead to differences in battery performance and lifecycle. For instance, light-duty EV battery cathodes can contain lithium, nickel, manganese, aluminum, and cobalt whereas a lithium iron-phosphate battery may be used for electric buses since it has high degree of temperature endurance, power, and lifespan.

OEM Sourcing Trends

An EV battery is manufactured in two distinct stages: the production of the battery cells, and the assembly of those cells to achieve the vehicles’ rated power capacity. The global battery supply chain is complex and multi-faceted, which can introduce risk to both the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) and the vehicle consumer. Each stage in a battery’s supply chain represents different sourcing tradeoffs and introduces potential supply chain risk that must be navigated.

An EV battery is manufactured in two distinct stages: the production of the battery cells, and the assembly of those cells to achieve the vehicles’ rated power capacity.

Sourcing EV batteries commonly involves both material purchasing and manufacturing outside the United States which is typically more cost-effective as supply chains for materials, labor, assembly, and distribution are already in place. However, such sourcing involves considerably less control and oversight of production. These global supply chains are also highly susceptible to the impacts of geopolitics and global events, such as the current pandemic, which can greatly affect all aspects of supply and production.

Some OEMs are actively pursuing long-term agreements with suppliers for both battery and battery components. In certain cases, OEMs are working to bring battery manufacturing closer to their own operations. By doing so, these OEMs are shifting towards a more vertically integrated model for EV production. Vertical integration helps to stabilize the supply chain and reduce risks related to both sourcing raw material and unpredictable geopolitical events. This vertical integration model, however, can be much more costly and involved.

Global supply chains as well as domestic battery manufacturers contribute to the supply of EV batteries.

Of all the raw materials that comprise battery production, cobalt is surrounded by the most controversy. For instance, the social and civil responsibility issues surrounding the mining and extraction of cobalt in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the region where the majority of the world’s cobalt is sourced, have been well-documented. With increasing consumer awareness surrounding the negative impacts of cobalt sourcing and production, battery and technology companies are increasingly assessing and restructuring their sourcing practices.

EV Battery Lifecycle

To be considered truly sustainable, the entire lifecycle of a product needs to be taken into consideration. For EV batteries, this includes the initial sourcing of components as well as what happens to batteries after they reach the end of their useful life.

To be considered truly sustainable, the entire lifecycle of a battery needs to be considered, from the sourcing of components to end of useful life.

Performance standards typically dictate that if an EV battery can no longer be charged to more than 80% of its rated capacity and achieve a self-discharge rate of no more than 5% over 24 hours, then it has exhausted its useful life. This means that when a battery is retired from vehicle use, it still has 80% of its capacity, and can be recycled for other uses.

Because there is a great deal of cost, labor, and materials involved in the manufacturing of EV batteries, a battery’s full lifecycle should include post-vehicle-use recycling.

Recycling can take either the secondary life or the deconstruction pathway. The secondary life pathway allows for post-vehicle-use battery roles including grid management, energy storage, and street lighting. This second-life battery market is estimated to reach $550 billion by 2050, with OEMs such as BYD, Toyota, BMW, GM, and Volvo all looking to find after-vehicle market uses for batteries. For instance, the Volvo LIGHTS Project in Southern California will test the viability of using second-life batteries in a real-world facility to improve grid and facility resiliency, provide load management, and offset EV cost of ownership. Companies such as BigBattery, the largest supplier of surplus and recertified batteries in the US, can also address demand for second-life batteries.

There is a great deal of cost, labor, and materials involved in the manufacturing of EV batteries, such that the full lifecycle should include post-vehicle-use recycling.

The deconstruction pathway for EV batteries is more complicated largely because battery designs vary by manufacturer. The lead-acid battery recycling pathway has had the most success so far because the battery design is more standardized. Lithium-ion battery designs vary by manufacturer, which presents a challenge to standardized recycling processes.

Standardizing EV battery pack design will contribute toward streamlined recycling processes and increased raw material recovery. EV battery deconstruction is not yet cost effective, but companies such as Li-Cycle are working to improve resource recovery. In the future, the quality of the full lifecycle may lead to certain battery types prevailing over others.

Takeaway on the Future of EV Batteries

Many experts predict that lithium-ion batteries will be the EV technology of choice for the next decade. OEMs are keeping a close eye on other battery technologies currently under development, including solid state electrolyte batteries, low-cobalt cathodes, silicon-based anodes, and sodium-ion batteries. For instance, GM is already implementing a proprietary low-cobalt technology in their new Ultium battery unveiled earlier this year. As these newer technologies mature, they will come with their own cost and benefit tradeoffs.

Though COVID-19 has introduced economic uncertainty on many levels, several factors have recently strengthened calls from the public to address the climate crisis with even greater urgency and EVs remain an important tool to decarbonizing transportation. The public has recently experienced an unprecedented stretch of cleaner air due to decreased gasoline and diesel use because of the global pandemic. That said, a clean-air future will only become reality if a multitude of factors including public policy and the implementation of electrification technologies act in tandem to secure it. EV adoption and the EV battery sourcing practices will be part of the processes toward securing a cleaner future.