Electric vehicles: China takes steps to streamline EV battery recycling

China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) is to launch a pilot EV battery recycling program aimed at controlling the whole life cycle of automotive lithium-ion batteries, extending to battery production, sales, use, and disposal. The program will start in 17 major cities during August 2018 and will encourage cities and auto manufacturers to establish specific EV recycling outlets. This level of cooperation is also expected further upstream, with auto makers interacting with battery producers, and used-car dealers and scrap companies to build fully-integrated regional recycling systems.

The MIIT said that “the entire industrial chain needed to be fully mobilised to ensure that EV batteries were recovered”. For this, it would strictly control the number of new enterprises involved in battery recycling while supporting the battery recycling ecosystem through tax incentives and other financing methods. 

To ensure compliance from all companies involved in the extensive lithium-ion battery supply chain, the recycling program will include a “traceability management platform” to track the batteries. The relevant authorities will issue identification codes for individual batteries, similar to the vehicle identification number (VIN) already standardised in the auto making industry.

Roskill view: with the new EV recycling program, the Chinese government is anticipating challenges already faced by the lead-acid battery market; lead-acid batteries are used in nearly 250 million electric scooters circulating in China’s streets. Despite the new structured efforts, recycling of automotive lithium-ion batteries in China will face several challenges, ranging from the increasingly efficient secondary use of battery packs to today’s lack of automation in the recycling industry.

As recently observed, battery management systems* used in EV packs are extending battery life, which will create business opportunities for secondary uses in applications such as energy storage systems (ESS). Automakers such as Renault, Mercedes and Nissan are already installing used EV batteries in several ESS projects. This could extend the total life of EV packs to 12-15 years compared to the expected 8-10 years guaranteed to drivers by most automakers. These secondary uses could further delay the scale-up of lithium-ion battery recycling operations while straining battery raw materials supplies. In 2018, China is expected to extract 7.2kt of battery packs from EVs, and this could rise to 60kt by 2022. Whether these batteries will be recycled or installed in ESS will depend on battery raw materials prices and the economics of re-use in the final ESS application.

Another problem is the current lack of automation within the lithium-ion battery recycling industry. Lithium-ion battery cells have multiple sizes, shapes and casing types. Their internal structure is far more complicated than a lead-acid battery, and the recovered materials require extensive processing to transform them into “battery grade” products. Additionally, battery packs containing the cells have multiple designs and configurations too. Some initial recycling steps such as the “pre-treatment” are, therefore, difficult to automate today. The Chinese government and other countries are moving to force battery makers to produce standardised and easily removable batteries to promote further investments in recycling automation.

*Battery management systems (BMS) are designed to control the temperature of the battery pack while discharging every battery cell evenly. This thermal control reduces cell degradation and capacity loss as a result of side chemical reactions when the battery operates at high temperatures. 

To discuss the electric vehicle industry with Roskill, contact Jose Lazuen: jose@roskill.com or Nessa Zhang: nessa@roskill.com