It once housed RAF fighter squadrons during the Battle of Britain. But soon Coventry Airport could be home to a battery revolution in the West Midlands.
The site is one proposed home for a UK “gigafactory”, a battery plant that will provide the power source for the millions of electric vehicles (EVs) the Government hopes will one day be built in Britain.
Andy Street, the West Midlands mayor, declared he “will not rest” until the region has the gigafactory it needs.
UK start-up BritishVolt is said to have considered the land for its £2.6bn gigafactory, but turned it down. Other firms reported to be looking at the UK are Slovakia’s Inobat, Samsung and LG Chem. Ford is also considering where to put a battery plant for its upcoming electric Transit Custom van. The Government has pledged £500m to support gigafactory projects.
While it is hoped laying down huge gigafactories that will produce millions of batteries to go in electric vehicles across Europe can cut down on carbon emissions from transport, with it comes a new problem: e-waste.
“The incoming tsunami of end-of-life batteries is still yet to come,” says Ajay Kochhar, chief executive of Li-Cycle, North America’s largest lithium-ion recycling company. “The first generation of electric cars only hit the road a few years ago.”
The raw materials needed to make electric car batteries are scarce. Cobalt, nickel and lithium all have hotly contested supply chains. Recycling these metals could provide a valuable source where there are no local mines.
Britain is racing to secure battery manufacturing capacity having fallen behind Europe. So far there are 38 battery gigafactories planned across Europe. Just one has a confirmed UK site, BritishVolt, which has a location in Blythe planned.
An artist's impression of BritishVolt's battery plant in Blythe
Another British firm, AMTE Power, is planning a two-gigawatt factory. Its chief executive Kevin Brundish, warns the industry needs “significantly higher levels of support” than the current £500m.
Analysts Benchmark Mineral Intelligence say more like £15bn is needed, with at least 25pc from the state. “Without lithium ion batteries, you won’t have rapid mass adoption of EVs,” they say. “And without lithium, cobalt [and] nickel … you won’t have lithium ion batteries.”
Electric car batteries have a relatively long lifespan of up to 15 years, but they will soon be piling up. Gavin Harper, a fellow at the Faraday Institution and researcher at the University of Birmingham, calculates that there will be about 8m tonnes of waste batteries by 2040, roughly 1.3 times the mass of the Great Pyramid of Giza.
Worldwide car battery waste could weigh more than the Great Pyramid of Giza by 2040
Waste batteries, in particular cobalt, risk being toxic. Figures for how many lithium batteries are recycled vary from as low as 5pc to just under half. But for Harper, the coming surplus of electric batteries should be viewed as “an enormous resource”.
Electric cars normally run on lithium-ion batteries which contain several hundred individual lithium-ion cells. There is value that can be extracted from the metals used to create these batteries which can be reused or cleaned and recycled.
However, due to the hazardous materials the batteries contain, they require proper dismantling to avoid them exploding.
Carmakers are also looking at lithium iron phosphate batteries, which are cheaper because they use abundant iron rather than rarer metals. These are now being used in Tesla’s Model 3 cars. However, the cheaper price of their raw materials means there is less value in recycling them.
“It’s a very good battery material,” says Paul Anderson, co-director of Birmingham University’s Centre for Strategic Elements and Critical Materials. “The sting in the tail is that it’s the value of the expensive metals that makes recycling viable.”
Soon, these batteries will be present in tens of millions of cars. By 2030, there will be 145m electric cars on the roads compared to just 11m today.
Battery recycling faces something of a chicken and egg problem. It is hard to justify ramping up recycling with so few electric cars on the roads – meaning batteries go to waste.
UK battery waste could exceed 100,000 units by 2025
Hans Eric Melin at Circular Energy Storage says there is capacity to recycle batteries, in particular in China. However, he warns that this makes it more challenging to build up capacity in Europe, not least in the UK. The challenge of recycling the coming wave of lithium ion batteries appears daunting, but there is a precedent.
“Around 96pc of lead acid batteries are recycled or reused,” says Saiful Islam, professor of materials chemistry at the University of Bath. “That will be the same for lithium ion in cars.”
But boosting recycling will require changes from battery makers and car manufacturers. Currently, batteries are shredded into a substance called “black mass”, a slag that is then refined so minerals can be removed. But this is energy intensive. Manually disassembling battery parts is possible, but comes with safety hazards.
Recycled lithium-ion batteries are turned into black mass from which minerals can be removed
Credit: Mark Lopez/Argonne National Laboratory
Harper believes robotics and automation can speed up the process and make it safer. Apple has built a robot, called Daisy, that can disassemble iPhones for the valuable minerals inside.
Carmakers also have a role to play, Harper says. “There is a massive case for designing for recycling,” he says. Currently most car batteries and parts are glued together, making unpicking them costly.
There is also a business opportunity. The market for recycling lithium ion batteries is thought to be in the region of $12bn by 2025. The European Union is updating its Battery Directive that demands a minimum level of recycled material is used in new batteries.
While the brunt of the battery recycling challenge may seem far off, some of it is needed now, says Simon Moores, managing director of Benchmark Mineral Intelligence. Even in the manufacturing process “scrap rates can be 25pc to start with”, he says. “Recycling is needed adjacent to battery plants.”
There is a risk of the UK falling behind on recycling. According to a report from the University of Warwick, there are no large scale lithium ion battery recycling sites in the UK, and most of our waste is exported. They argue recycling could fulfil 22pc of Britain’s gigafactory demand for raw materials.
Harper says recycling batteries shouldn’t be seen as a painful cost. He notes Chinese battery makers, such as BYB, are already looking at how their cells can be recycled to re-use these rare materials on the cheap.
He argues that the industry’s current approach to batteries, which sees them “shred them and then work out what to do with that waste”, needs to change – which will start with the battery companies and carmakers building plants in Britain. “If you want to recover the cathode intact, it would be much better to design batteries to be disassembled,” Harper says.
For him, it is a way for Britain to extract raw materials that might be rare in the UK and create a domestic supply from nothing. “These metals are really valuable and we do not have an indigenous supply in the UK. It is urban mining in a high tech way,” he says.
If he is right, Britain’s proposed gigafactories, such as at Coventry airport and in Blythe, will soon need giga-recycling plants to go alongside them.