The Department of Energy has begun to sort out the nation’s next big recycling problem: what to do with batteries used by electric cars.
Yesterday, it awarded 15 checks in the amount of $67,000 to the winners of a contest that’s focused on making sure the batteries don’t end up in a landfill. They got the prizes for finding ways to collect used electric vehicle batteries, to efficiently extract valuable materials from them or to find “second life uses” for batteries that can still store electricity.
Daniel Simmons, the head of DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, announced the awards at a meeting of prize winners and industry experts yesterday. The meeting, held here at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, focused on the problems posed by the mounting number of EVs.
Less than 5% of materials from EV batteries are being recycled. A number of companies are interested in finding ways to standardize the process, Simmons said. That will be the goal of a second phase of the contest, where prize winners could earn $250,000 to $500,000.
A third phase will award winners between $500,000 and $1 million for ideas that can be scaled up to deal with a surge of electric cars. The number of EVs are expected to double by 2025 and quadruple by 2030.
“We need outside-the-box ideas,” Simmons said in an interview, noting that in the future the U.S. will become more dependent on the minerals that go into batteries than on fossil fuels.
He noted that the most valuable lithium-ion battery component—cobalt—must be imported, mainly from Congo. Lithium, the lightest known metal, has a variety of nonbattery uses, including for some medical treatments. Recycling will also produce nickel and aluminum.
“Our goal is to keep a lot of this stuff out of the landfills,” Simmons explained, pointing out that the goal of the prizes is to stimulate technologies that could recycle as much as one-third of the materials needed for batteries in 2025.
“You can’t do this in your driveway,” he added, noting that conventional car owners can replace lead acid batteries with a pair of pliers. They disconnect the wires and then pull old batteries out of their cars.
But in EVs, the extraction process is very different. EV batteries can weigh as much as 1,500 pounds, and they take up most of the space beneath the floorboards. They are expected to last 15 years, roughly the lifetime of the cars. After that, some of them may still have enough life to store renewable energy. Some could be used as backup power systems for buildings and, perhaps when wired together, multiple batteries could be storage units for small towns.
“There are companies that are also looking at this,” Simmons explained.
In the last decade, DOE has resorted to a variety of contests to solve new technology problems. Two prize winners, for example, invented a process in their garage that can generate electricity from ocean waves.
More recently, the contests have focused on made-in-America solar energy solutions and on solar-powered desalination of seawater. “We’re trying to find areas where they [contests] can move the ball the most,” Simmons said.