US Must Focus on Recycling Electric Vehicle Batteries

Graphic of a Duracell battery.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry announced in mid-January an effort to increase the country’s capacity to recycle the raw materials of lithium-ion batteries. We must follow through in this endeavor to reduce our dependence on foreign markets and grow the electric vehicle market.

Lithium-ion batteries are already widely used in the US, including in smartphones, laptops, Bluetooth speakers, and other devices. The expected boom in the electric vehicle industry is set to increase our dependence on these batteries even more in the near future.

But the materials that make up lithium-ion batteries – specifically lithium and cobalt – are in limited supply. Although neither are rare earth metals, not enough mines are producing the materials at rates to satisfy demand.

Furthermore, more than half of the global supply of cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which is plagued with corruption and poor governance. Congolese cobalt is likely produced by child labor, according to the Labor Department. Meanwhile, the lithium market is controlled by a few key players and new entrants have difficulty entering the field.

Given the issues surrounding the production of both lithium and cobalt, the US must learn to recycle these materials more widely to ensure a consistent and reliable supply. Lithium-ion batteries are currently collected and recycled at a rate less than 5%, according to the Department of Energy.

Electric vehicle producers need to be assured they will be able to procure the materials necessary to power their vehicles at reasonable prices. Prices for cobalt in particular have been on a rollercoaster ride over the past few years due to supply and demand worries.

If the US has the ability to recycle lithium and cobalt, prices for lithium-ion batteries could fall. Lower battery prices could lead to cheaper electric vehicles, speeding up their adoption.