Achieving EV sustainability by maximising battery longevity

It is critical that the entire automotive supply chain strives to become more efficient and sustainable, as the world moves closer to phasing out ICE vehicles.

While transitioning towards higher rates of EV ownership is certainly positive, the environmental costs of producing EV batteries and the premature disposal of unused components into landfill must not be overlooked. Ensuring the complete environmental advantages of EV technology over its entire lifespan relies heavily on two key factors: optimising battery longevity and proactively tackling the underlying issues that lead to battery deterioration. Below, we elaborate on the significance of these aspects.

Are EVs really sustainable?

Many recent reports have shed light on the limitations of electric vehicles on the path to decarbonisation, with critics highlighting the environmental cost of producing new batteries.

It is right to acknowledge that the upfront environmental costs of producing an electric vehicle exceed those of an ICE. But, as the saying goes, it is a marathon, not a sprint; eventually electric vehicles pass a carbon break-even point, depending on the EV in question, anywhere between 20,000 and 55,000 miles, after which the environmental benefits start to accrue. The aim should, therefore, be to ensure that batteries stay in operation for as long as possible beyond this point to unlock their full value.

Achieving this goal is contingent on halting premature decline and finding ways to optimise battery health. The integrity of the used EV market, and the viability of EVs as a long-term alternative to ICE depends on it.

The hidden costs of recycling

Much of the discussion around EV circularity has revolved around finding ways to recycle failed EV battery packs with greater efficiency. Recycling is, however, far from a silver bullet solution to the challenge of circularity, and in many respects could be seen as counterproductive to sustainability efforts.

When an EV battery fails, there is a strong likelihood that at least some of the modules can perform to the required standard. And yet, the residual value of these batteries is completely lost within the recycling process. We have a duty to extract every last possible bit of value from each battery module, therefore, recycling should only be considered when it is no longer able to be re-used, either within an automotive application or through second-life.

Recycling an EV battery requires significant quantities of water and electricity, while also generating excess carbon emissions along the way. Defaulting to recycling is arguably a form of short-termism, whereas it is far more prudent to prevent waste in the first place. This view is validated by the waste management hierarchy framework, and now that we have the technology to pre-emptively tackle the root causes of battery faults and restore optimal performance with minimal to no risk of repeat failure, we can no longer afford to neglect the untapped potential that exists within EV batteries. The below chart outlines how much energy and water can be saved when battery repair and remanufacturing is undertaken, compared to recycling.

Figure one: Graphs shows the comparison of water, electricity and CO2 emissions for new production, pyrometallurgical recycling, hydrometallurgical recycling and repair of an 80kWh EV battery pack.

The problem with historical EV battery testing

EV battery repair and remanufacture can, in some cases, double battery life, yielding only a fraction of the environmental costs of producing a new battery pack or even recycling a failed one. That said, many commentators still claim that safe and scalable EV battery repair is not possible.

Much of this view stems from a misunderstanding of what can actually be achieved through cutting-edge battery testing. Historically, inadequate testing methods made the process of accurately pinpointing the cause of battery faults virtually impossible, leading to repeat faults and persistent issues, as often repair processes targeted only the symptoms of decline.

Neither could such testing methodologies reliably account for imminent faults, meaning that manufacturers operated entirely in reactive mode, leaving them in a position of vulnerability. With no reliable way to address the causes of EV battery decline, this diminished the potential environmental benefits of each battery and undermined confidence in EVs on the whole.

How do we offset premature decline?

Maximising the longevity of EV batteries starts with being able to accurately identify faulty or underperforming cells. Our patented REVIVE™ technologies does just this, assessing battery flaws on a cellular level which is essential when maintaining the health of the whole pack – when a battery performs to the level of its weakest performing cells, replacing faulty cells with healthy ones can restore performance to an optimal level. While some degradation from calendar ageing is unavoidable, cyclical decline, which occurs as a direct result of how the vehicle is operated, can be reversed via this method.

This approach has allowed Autocraft to undertake preventative action by utilising ‘digital twin’ data sets, collected throughout our years of remanufacture. These data sets enable us to predict potential future faults and take the necessary steps to proactively target the causes of decline.

EV battery performance requirements must also be reconciled with the need to cut carbon emissions. In this regard, replacing underperforming cells or modules with healthy ones collected from failed packs is significantly more sustainable, negating the need to produce new modules or packs. Underpinning this process is Autocraft’s unique ability to grade modules and identify which ones are suitable for use, an element that is hugely important if the automotive industry is to ensure that no module is wasted.

Beyond sustainability – restoring confidence in the used EV market

Having a reliable, scalable process for preventing EV battery decline is crucial to the future aspirations of the automotive industry. For OEMs, this can greatly reduce their exposure to warranty claims and the reputational impact of repeat failures.

From a wider standpoint, this capability underpins confidence in used EVs. Buyers need no longer harbour reservations about buying used vehicles as the risk of failure is greatly diminished. This has vast implications for a whole series of factors, including residual values, insurance and financing, all of which rely on transparency around vehicle health. Maintaining demand for used vehicles is pivotal to ensuring they remain in use for as long as possible.

The whole automotive supply chain is obligated to take responsibility for the size of its carbon footprint and must therefore minimise environmental impacts. Circularity is complex and requires more than one approach, but it’s clear that extending the life of EV batteries is both a viable and ideal solution which ties in with both the hierarchy of waste and the burgeoning demands on OEMs to provide continuous supply.

By squeezing every last bit of value from battery packs, we can be both less wasteful and more efficient, whilst demonstrating a genuine commitment to sustainability.

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