The Niti Aayog predicts that India’s EV battery recycling market is set to expand to 128 GWh by 2030 — from a mere 2 GWh in 2023. This is undoubtedly spurred on by an over 200% year-on-year growth in EV sales since the end of the pandemic. Yet, modern batteries are a complex mix of materials and will require specialist policies and infrastructure for India to fully realise its recycling targets.
Most commercially available batteries today use the Lithium Cobalt Oxide (LCO) or the Lithium Nickel Manganese Cobalt Oxide (NMC) chemistries, with a smattering of other metals (fig. 1). LCO with its 37% market share globally is the most popular but is employed more to power electronics, while the NMC batteries with their 29% share are widely used in EVs.
Fig. 1: Constituents of common li-ion chemistry batteries | JMK Research
The need to recycle EV batteries (and others) is four-fold:
- Environmental impact
The batteries extensively use lithium (which reacts with atmospheric moisture to combust and release large amounts of heat), nickel, cobalt, graphite, manganese and copper. All of these metals can contaminate the soil and groundwater at the landfills where used batteries are disposed of, which can have wide-ranging environmental impacts.
- Insulating against supply issues
Lithium and cobalt, critical for most rechargeable batteries, are not produced in India to the extent needed to insulate the country from supply shocks. Lithium is primarily mined in Chile, while the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) holds the monopoly over cobalt with around 50% of the world’s known reserves. India has inked deals with Chile for more lithium (while China partners with the DRC), but recovering the mineral from used batteries is a much more prudent solution till its new found lithium deposits in Jammu and Kashmir are brought up to commercial extraction. The country also spent a whopping Rs 163 billion (USD 1.97 billion) between April - December 2022 alone to import lithium and lithium-ion.
- Optimising second life applications
Discarding used EV batteries after they are no longer suitable for automotive applications is incredibly wasteful. These batteries lose their charge-holding capacity at around 2.3% every year and are usually only 85-90% effective by the end of the vehicles’ 5-8 year life cycle. Yet, the packs can and are reconditioned for use in energy storage. Besides, the three most commonly used recycling methodologies of mechanical reclamation, pyro-metallurgy (thermal recycling) and hydro-mettalurgy (with the use of chemicals) recover up to 90% of the constituent metals and the lithium recovered can be 99% pure, which makes it instantly available for re-use.
- Reducing carbon emissions
Recycling batteries is estimated to also lower their production cycles’ carbon emissions by up to 90%.EV battery recycling is already prevalent outside India and in 2019, around 100,000 tonnes out of the 180,000 tonnes of lithium-ion batteries produced globally were recycled.
Gaps in recycling capacity and processes in India
India’s biggest gap with battery recycling is that it currently lacks a nationwide battery disposal and recycling programme run by authorised agencies. Around 90% of India’s used batteries (most of which as not even li-ion but lead acid units) are either processed by the unorganised sector, or they end up in landfills and garbage dumps. This is not only an environmental problem but also a human hazard.
Additionally, as learnings from other countries have shown, coordination with EV and battery manufacturers throughout the EV lifecycle is important to drive the efficiency of the recovery process. For example:
- Germany and Japan each mandate Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) to ensure that the manufacturers work with their customers and authorised waste collection points and recycling units to recover the used batteries. German automaker BMW already recovers 95% of its batteries, even in markets outside the EU, while Volkswagen has set itself a target of 97% in the near future.
- Japan specifically has a battery collection collective, called the Japan Portable Rechargeable Battery Recycle Center, to recover and recycle used li-ion batteries free of charge.
- The EU is working to set a target of recycling at least 95% of the bloc’s single use alkaline and Nickel Cadmium batteries by 2030.
Recent developments and opportunities ahead for India
The most significant development in this segment was the Government of India's release of draft regulations for battery recycling in August 2022. Called the Battery Waste Management Rules, 2022, it:
- Specifically outlines li-ion chemistry batteries used in EVs for recycling.
- Mandates EPR for Indian battery manufacturers with penalties for non-compliance.
- Is likely to offer incentives for entrepreneurs in setting up recycling facilities.
- Outlines a minimum of 90% materials recovery by 2027.
- Mandates the use of 5% recycled materials in new batteries by 2027, which will rise to 20% by 2030-31.
India is also home to Tata Chemical’s battery recycling plant that was opened in 2019, and Atero will expand its facility in Telangana to 19,500 tonnes by the end of 2023. However, for the industry to reach 128 GWh capacity by 2030, it’s critical that:
- The Central and state governments coordinate the collection of used batteries across all major cities and towns.
- Certifications for authorised agencies are established soon, coupled with capacity building to ensure that all EV batteries are collected, stored, transported and recycled per international safety and quality standards. This cannot be stressed enough.
- Simultaneously, current EV owners, dealerships that sell any manner of electrified vehicles (including hybrids), and potential EV buyers need to be educated that just as with lead-acid batteries, li-ion units must be returned to the manufacturers.
Once this chain is established, routine checks to ensure compliance with targets will make sure that used batteries do not end up in landfills. The recycling sector will also grow to be a prominent employment generator for battery collectors, materials engineers, chemical engineers and the electro-mechanical trades, so it’s imperative that the authorities, automakers, battery manufacturers and recycling establishments collaborate immediately on the finer details.