Matériaux & Techniques
Volume 105, Numéro 5-6, 2017
Society and Materials (SAM11)
Numéro d'article 515
Nombre de pages 12
Publié en ligne 11 juillet 2018

© EDP Sciences, 2018

1 Introduction

1.1 The role of electric mobility for sustainable cities

Electricity storage is a key issue to reach the next development levels of sustainability and resilience in cities. It is essential to keep integrating and increasing the share of renewable and combined energy sources in smart grids, as well as for the rollout of electric mobility [1].

The technological components of sustainable city planning are gathered in the idea of smart cities, which is developing more or less since 2010 under the leadership of industries and the European Commission. The scope of smart cities is vast: the massive digitalization going on in every sector is providing more detailed data and more real-time information, modeling and monitoring are evolving quickly. This is affecting the planning and optimization of all infrastructures and taking forward the transformation of urban mobility.

Municipalities are assessing the new opportunities provided by smart city technologies and testing innovative approaches. They play a key role for the future of mobility as policy makers, as economic stakeholders through their public service companies, and as local planning coordinators with direct contact to all local stakeholders from citizens to large companies.

The rise of secondary lithium batteries has proven to be a game changer for the development of new technologies: from smart devices to drones and up to delivery trucks, lithium-ion batteries (LIB) are literally at the heart of everything turning more and more our urban areas into smart cities.

However, these batteries like many high-end technologies, contain many (potentially) critical raw materials, which raises issues of sufficient future resource availability and supply security. This problem is especially relevant in cities due to their potential higher shares in electric mobility. Such higher shares possibly result from obligations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or particulate matter, higher amounts of short distance travelling, good charging infrastructures and higher electricity production, as well as consumption.

More than half of the world’s population already lives in cities and by 2050, nearly 70 percent of world’s population is projected to be urban. Thus, it is not far-fetched to predict that the demand for LIB in cities as well as the material requirements for their production will keep growing in the coming decades. Though, with the increasing number of electric vehicles (EV) entering the market in the future and with a significant supply crunch, recycling is expected to be an important factor to consider for an effective material supply for battery production.

In this study, we address several critical questions for the future of smart cities. Will the lithium production capacities be able to match the market demand? And at which cost? What role do smart cities play for the development of global lithium flows?

Considering the decreasing storage capacity of batteries during their lifetime and the increasing number of devices, tackling end-of-life (EOL) issues is unavoidable. The possibilities and conditions for recycling of lithium from retired EV batteries have to be assessed:

  • when might the lithium prize be high enough to allow for economic recycling?

  • how will the amount of secondary lithium develop depending on the evolution of the raw material prize?

  • which other options are there to promote the profitability of lithium recycling from EV batteries?

Starting from some background information about technological aspects such as Li-based battery technologies and recycling options for batteries we will present in the first part the methodology of this study. This includes:

  • a system definition;

  • a model description and the processes at work in the different phases of the life cycle;

  • the estimation of the data applied;

  • a scenario analysis of the price trend as well.

The second part is dedicated to the results of the modeling. In the third part, we will discuss the conditions of recycling options. After analyzing the technical and economical requirements, our focus on cities will add specific components likely to facilitate an urban business model of recycling. This part will include social, political, organizational and environmental dimensions affecting the life cycle of electric storage and its material demand.

2 Background

2.1 Battery technologies for electric vehicles

Electrochemical storage systems (ESS) differ according to their energy and power density as well as lifetime, safety issues and application areas (cf. Fig. 1, Tab. 1). The batteries composition varies to comply with different requirements. Especially lithium-ion batteries show a great variety within their active materials where more than 10 different battery chemistries are currently used containing up to 15 distinct metals. It can be distinguished between intercalation and conversion batteries. The most common lithium-ion types are intercalation batteries consisting of lithium metal oxides as positive electrode and graphite as negative electrode. The first lithium-ion batteries comprised either lithium cobalt oxide (LCO) or lithium manganese oxide (LMO). To overcome drawbacks in specific power, safety and life span cathode combinations of nickel manganese cobalt (NMC), as well as nickel cobalt aluminum (NCA) were developed. These two battery chemistries show good overall performance and excel on specific energy, which makes them the currently preferred candidates for EV (e.g., Nissan Leaf, Tesla, BMWi3). Besides, lithium iron phosphate (LFP) offers good electrochemical performance with high safety and long life span and is thus already very close to a broad market introduction, due to their robustness and cost structure [2].

These different battery chemistries incorporate specific metal contents depending on their individual composition. The lithium portion in the battery types NMC and LFP is comparatively low, accounting for only 0.11 and 0.13 kg/kWh respectively [4]. NCA, LCO and LMO contain moderate lithium values of around 0.25 kg/kWh [5]. Moreover, batteries with lithium titanate anodes such as LFP-LTO or LMO-LTO can also come into consideration since they show good safety performance as well as a long lifetime. LFP-LTO comprises a significant higher lithium portion of up to 0.62 kg/kWh [6]. However, since their energy density is lower than that of other lithium-ion batteries, these types are probably more suitable for stationary applications.

In the case of EV batteries, researchers are constantly working on improvements to reduce the costs of batteries while enhancing the driving range of EV. This implies to increase battery storage capacity, life span and robustness. Therefore, research on battery materials also concentrates on conversion batteries such as lithium sulfur (Li-S) and lithium air (Li-Air) offering very high theoretical specific capacity [11,12]. But several disadvantages such as high electrical resistance, capacity fading, self-discharge have restricted their application so far. Furthermore, Li-S contains a comparatively high portion of 0.41 kg/kWh of lithium [13].

Each of these battery types has its advantages and disadvantages, which makes it difficult to predict the most promising one for future EVs. Current EV are equipped with different battery technologies though; LMO, LFP, NMC, and NCA being the most frequently used [14].

thumbnail Fig. 1

Ragone Plot of different battery technologies showing their individual performance owing to energy and power density [3].

Diagramme de Ragone de différentes technologies de batteries montrant leur performance individuelle en énergie et en densité énergétique [3].

Table 1

Characteristics and applications of different types of lithium-based batteries (data sources: Pistoia 2014; Buchmann 2017; Korthauer 2013; Friedrich 2012 [710]).

Caractéristiques et applications de différents types de batteries au lithium.

2.2 Recycling of EV batteries

Widespread adoption of EV will lead to a significant increase of EOL EV-batteries, becoming available for recycling within the next decades. Recycling can reduce the amount of virgin materials required for the growing battery production, as well as decrease energy consumption and the associated environmental impacts [15,16]. Furthermore, the recycling of batteries is legally required [17] as is the recycling of EOL vehicles [18].

However, the recycling of batteries does not directly imply the recycling of lithium from spent batteries. The efficiency to recover materials is dependent on the recycling technologies being available for EV batteries. Two different recycling approaches are distinguished [19]:

  • recovery of metals: such recycling processes are dedicated to regaining metals or metal alloys at the end of the recycling loop and further refine them to a level allowing transformation into new battery materials. These technologies often only involve minimum sorting and mechanical preconditioning and can thus be used at a large scale to treat huge volumes of batteries;

  • recovery of compounds: means recycling processes concentrating on separating fractions (e.g., plastics, foils) before extracting valuable compounds from these fractions (e.g., electrolyte, separator, active cathode material). Such technologies usually require intensive sorting and mechanical preconditioning confining their use typically to small-scale installations.

Following these main strategies, three recycling processes for batteries currently exist:

  • pyrolysis;

  • hydrothermal;

  • direct physical recycling [15,20].

Pyrolysis is a process where batteries are melted in a furnace to obtain a metal alloy for further refining thereby forming a slag that contains several materials. This pyrometallurgical recycling is highly effective at recovering Nickel (Ni) and Cobalt (Co) in a concentrated alloy while toxic solvents are burned [19,20]. End products are basic metals to be used in diverse applications, including upgrading to (new) cathode materials [19]. However, other relevant elements such as Lithium (Li) and Manganese (Mn) end up in the slag. Recovering lithium from the slag is only a theoretical possibility, for being expensive and inefficient at present [20]. This resource remains instead in the slag, used as cement additive in the construction sector [21,19]. Pyrolysis processes are energy efficient and show robustness to different battery chemistries. As a proven technology, it already exists at industrial scale.

Hydrothermal recycling uses acid reactions to isolate component chemical compounds from battery waste to precipitate the salts as metals. Through the combination of physical and chemical processes that resembles mining extraction, many of the constituents of a cell can be recovered at a high efficiency and be reused as battery material [20]. But these processes are fairly energy intensive, due to their use of hot water and lots of chemicals with high Global Warming Potential [19,20]. To ensure the efficiency of the process, the source material needs to be known (e.g. battery chemistry), which requires careful sorting of the batteries before [19]. The recovery of metals is expensive leaving potential revenue and costs highly dependent on the scale of the process.

Direct physical recycling means the battery materials are separated and remanufactured, allowing reuse without changing their chemical form. Through adding lithium compounds to the recovered cathode material, the original properties can be restored [20]. Direct physical recycling potentially recovers battery materials in a reusable form (e.g. cathode, anode, electrolyte, metals) [22]. However, the efficiency of the process depends on knowing the battery chemistry, which requires appropriate sorting of the batteries [20,22]. This means the physical recycling approach (manual treatment) to breach the cell and extract its contents may be difficult to scale.

The present situation of battery recycling in Europe is as follows: only pyrolysis is available at an industrial scale (e.g. Umicore), while hydrometallurgical facilities are still at a prototype stage [15,20,19]. Approaches of direct physical recycling are currently still at a lab scale [20]. Recovery of lithium from pyrolysis slag is not executed, for being still too expensive and thus inefficient compared to the low raw material prize [20,19,23]. This means, the economics of lithium recycling are dependent on the costs for producing lithium from primary sources such as extraction of lithium carbonate from brine deposits.

3 Methodology

3.1 System definition

The system investigated in this study is the global metal cycle of lithium consisting of the processes of production, use, as well as EOL. Some of these processes are further divided into sub-processes:

  • Production − primary lithium production from different reserves and secondary production from EV battery recycling;

  • EOL − EV battery recycling, either with or without recovery of secondary lithium.

Further applications of LIB such as electric bikes, scooters and trucks or even batteries solely produced for energy storage and their potential strong development are not integrated in the modelling. Lithium flows or losses to the environment are not considered since they are small compared to the growing lithium demand for EV batteries. The model covers a time-span of 15 years (2015–2030).

3.2 Model description

3.2.1 Use process

The applied dynamic model of the global lithium cycle is based on the stock dynamics concept developed by Müller [24], where the in-use stock is the primary driver for the material flows. The lithium in-use stock in future electric vehicles or more precisely in traction batteries powering these EV, as well as the respective inflows and outflows, are assessed applying material flow analysis (MFA). A more detailed description of the developed stock-driven MFA-model for vehicles (cf. Fig. 2) can be found in Ziemann et al. (2018) [25].

thumbnail Fig. 2

The applied dynamic model of the global lithium cycle.

Modèle dynamique appliqué au cycle global lithium.

3.2.2 Production process

Primary lithium production from brines and minerals determines the inflow into the in-use stock (cf. Fig. 2), while reducing the stock of current lithium reserves at the same time. If lithium is recovered from recycling of EV batteries, secondary lithium production adds to this inflow into the use process, substituting a part of primary lithium.

3.2.3 EOL process

There are two recycling options for obsolete traction batteries from the in-use stock:

  • open-loop (OL) recycling either recovers lithium in a quality where it can only be used for certain other lithium applications except lithium-ion batteries, or the lithium is not recovered at all but instead ends up in the construction sector or in landfills (cf. Fig. 2);

  • closed-loop (CL) recycling recovers lithium in a quality that allows recirculation in manufacturing new EV batteries. CL recycling can only be executed if the raw material price of primary lithium is high enough to enable cost-efficient recovery of secondary materials from EV batteries.

3.3 Data estimation

The data for this modeling is taken from various sources and shows different levels of detail. These are either projections from renowned institutions such as the United Nations and the International Energy Agency, or scientific studies and publications (see overview in Tab. 2). If data is not available for certain parameters, we made well-founded assumptions based on historical and current trends or we derived numbers from the applied data of other studies and their results, e.g., for car ownership and lifetimes. Values for battery capacities of Hybrid Electric Vehicles (HEV), Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (FCEV), Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEV), and Full Electric Vehicles (FEV) were selected following an extensive literature review of approximately 30 studies about future EV penetration scenarios [26].

The data for the market share of the different types of electric vehicles for the period 2000–2030 are derived from the BLUE Map (BM) projections of the International Energy Agency [27]. The BLUE Map projection is intended to provide a design of the transport sector in the future (to the year 2050) that achieves significant reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This shall be reached by various technical improvements, such as high advances in vehicle efficiency and by implementing future technologies in the mobility sector, especially zero emission vehicles like EV and FCEV. To obtain such significant emission reductions − the CO2 emissions of the transport sector in the year 2050 should be approximately 30% lower than in 2005 –requires the realization of wide-ranging political and economic actions [27]. The BLUE Map projection assumes that EV will penetrate the market effectively with FEV and PHEV, reaching a market share near to 60% of all light duty vehicles to be sold in 2050. For our modeling, we use the development of market shares of the different vehicle types starting in 2010 and reaching the following preliminary values in 2030: 25% HEV, 4% FCEV, 10% PHEV, and 12% FEV [27].

The lithium content of LIB is determined by the portion of lithium in the battery materials resulting from their individual battery chemistry or electrode configuration. Different types of LIB are used by car manufacturers at the moment with LMO, NMC or Lithium-Iron-Phosphate, LFP being the most frequently installed in EV (see also chapter 1.2). Observing development strategies in EV industry, it is very likely that many car manufacturers will concentrate on NCA due to an improved performance − Tesla, being the “first-mover” to produce only all-electric cars, already uses NCA battery cells for its EV [2830]. Thus, we applied a value of 0.25 kg/kWh lithium in our modeling, which complies with the lithium portion of NCA and represents a medium lithium content in batteries (see Tab. 2, [25]).

Data for lithium recycling is lacking since almost no lithium is recovered during battery recycling at the moment, for economic reasons [40]. The costs of recovering lithium (in the form of Li2CO3) from the slags of presently available recycling processes are higher than the costs for producing primary lithium from current reserves [19]. It is assumed that recycled lithium is as much as five times the cost of lithium produced from the least costly brine based process [38]. The brine deposit possessing the lowest extraction costs is Salar de Atacama in Chile, with production costs of approximately 2.21 $/kg. Using this as a basis, recycling costs for lithium of approximately 11 $/kg can be expected (see Tab. 2).

To assess the potential amount of secondary lithium from EV battery recycling that could substitute for primary raw material, we assume a recovery rate (RR) of 80%. Determined by the efficiency of the whole recycling chain including collection, dismantling, preprocessing and recovery efficiency of the core recycling process, 80% RR is an optimistic value (cf. Weil & Ziemann 2014 for a more detailed description) [39].

Table 2

Overview of input data and references for modeling future lithium demand.

Vue d’ensemble des données utilisées et des références pour la modélisation de la demande future de lithium.

3.4 Scenario analysis

Based on our current knowledge, the economics of lithium recovery are dependent on the value of the recycled material compared to the price of the primary raw material. If production of secondary lithium is more expensive than primary produced metal, the recovery of lithium from EV battery recycling is not cost-efficient. However, there are two options for lithium recovery to become profitable – either the raw material price rises or the costs for recovering secondary lithium decrease.

In our study, we want to explore how the price of primary produced lithium might develop until 2030 and how this affects lithium recovery from EV battery recycling, especially when lithium demand for EV batteries increases strongly. We assess two scenarios regarding the future increase of the lithium raw material price (see also Fig. 3).

thumbnail Fig. 3

Lithium price development assuming different trends based on the production and price increase between 2000 and 2015 (Data sources: USGS 2002–2017 [42]).

Développement du prix du lithium selon différentes tendances basées sur la progression de la production et des prix entre 2000 et 2015 (Sources des données : USGS 2002–2017 [42]).

3.4.1 Low scenario

The price of lithium carbonate from primary production showed a modest increase through the last 15 years; in fact, it doubled within this timespan starting from about 2.3 $/kg in 2001 to reach up to 4.51 $/kg in 2015. To extrapolate the identified historic price trend into the future we use a linear regression. A linear regression is the true, pure trend line providing a way to evaluate trends and to obtain a forecast. This scenario anticipates that the price trend observed in the last 15 years will continue in the same direction, at least for a while, and reach 8.4 $/kg in 2030.

3.4.2 High scenario

Here we assume a strong growth in lithium demand within the next 20 years as proposed in many studies (see also e.g., Ziemann et al. 2015; Simon et al. 2015; Kushnir and Sanden 2012; IEA 2009 [27,36,40,41]). If large changes are expected, the price trend will most likely develop differently from the historic trend. To reflect this when obtaining a forecast, one might consider analogous situations. Fast rising demand within a short period of time due to mass production of high-tech applications could already be observed for other raw materials (e.g. indium [16]). Such a strong growth of demand mostly leads to sharply increasing raw material prices equivalent to an exponential rise in commodity prices. Following this, we applied exponential regression to extrapolate the lithium price trend to 2030 (annual price increase of approximately 8%), where it reaches a maximum of 17.7 $/kg (cf. Fig. 3).

Taking account of the regional concentration of lithium reserves, the oligopolistic market of primary lithium production as well as the time it takes to expand production capacities (typically a minimum of 10 years) [43] a tight supply situation of lithium will presumably occur, once EV batteries are produced in huge quantities. The applied annual price increase in this high scenario is an approximate determination of sharp rising raw material prices caused by significant demand growth of EV batteries, as it was the case for indium in LCD and solar cells. Their prices have followed a trend where years of rapid significant increases were followed by a slow gradual decrease. However, underlying this almost cyclical trend, the indium price shows strong overall growth [44]. It is very likely for lithium prices to undergo a similar development, which we anticipated with the extrapolated exponential price trend.

4 Results

The annual lithium demand for EV batteries is predicted to show a continuous and strong annual increase up to more than 300,000 tons in the year 2030, due to rising market shares of the different EV types (cf. Figs. 4 and 5). Lithium inflow of 300,000 t in 2030 corresponds to approximately 9 times the current lithium primary production of 32,500 t in 2015. Such a strong growth of demand most probably leads to an increase of raw material prices, possibly making recycling more attractive.

However, a development of raw material prices that follows a low scenario resulting in approximately 8.4 $/kg in 2030 will not allow economic lithium recycling by then (see Figs. 3 and 4). In contrast if a high scenario is applied, the price of primary lithium reaches the threshold of 11 $/kg by the year 2025, making economic recovery of lithium possible. A certain amount of secondary lithium can be generated by battery recycling processes and reutilized for manufacturing of new LIB, thereby reducing the need for primary lithium between 2025 and 2030 (cf. Figs. 4 and 5). The quantity of secondary lithium from EV battery recycling was calculated by applying a recovery rate of 80% to the annual lithium outflow in EOL-batteries. High RR is needed for secondary lithium to cover a significant amount of the required annual lithium inflow for EV batteries. Since cost-efficiency is the prerequisite for lithium recovery, the amount of secondary lithium from EV battery recycling is determined by the available annual output of EOL-batteries starting with the year 2025. If lithium recycling is executed as soon as it becomes economically viable, generated secondary lithium (RR 80%) would sum up to 340,000 t and could cover approximately 14% of total lithium demand for EV batteries until 2030. The amount of secondary lithium is, however, limited to the outflow of EOL-batteries from the year before, because current recycling processes do not allow economic Li recovery, leaving no options for further treatment of metal containing slags. When the Li price reaches the threshold, a change in recycling processes will occur and certain amounts of lithium can be recovered from EOL-batteries. This secondary raw material can then substitute virgin material and cover lithium demand for EV (cf. Fig. 4) to a certain extent.

In comparison, if lithium recycling is carried out from the beginning of the modeling in 2015 the share of secondary lithium to fulfill growing demand is higher reaching 418,000 t by 2030 and 17% of the required lithium inflow respectively. Though, the total share of recycled material remains low as long as the stock of EV batteries is growing.

thumbnail Fig. 4

Simulated future demand of lithium for EV batteries (NCA-type) and the share covered by primary and secondary Li production assuming different price trends.

Simulation de la demande future de lithium pour les batteries VE (type-NCA [Nickel-Cobalt-Aluminium]) et des parts couvertes par les productions de Li primaire et secondaire selon différentes évolutions des prix.

thumbnail Fig. 5

Simulated development of lithium flows for EV batteries (NCA-type) assuming different trends in raw material prices of primary lithium.

Développement simulé des flux de lithium pour batteries VE (type-NCA) selon différentes évolutions du prix du lithium primaire brut.

5 Discussion

The modeling results show that secondary lithium can significantly reduce the demand for primary raw materials and thus save resources, only if the lithium price is high enough to make lithium recycling from EV batteries cost efficient. Already within a period of five years (2025–2030) an amount of 340,000 t of primary lithium could be saved, corresponding to nearly all currently known lithium resources in Australia [38]. A reduced demand for primary lithium would be associated with energy savings and emission reductions, as well as lower supply risks [15]. These effects may even develop stronger if the lithium content in batteries increases in the future. The direction of battery research suggests a trend to the use of more lithium-intense active materials such as Lithium-Titanate-Oxide (LTO) and Lithium-Sulfur (LiS) [11]. In addition, developments in the automotive industry are concentrated on reducing battery weight and increasing battery capacity, which presumably leads to higher lithium contents of traction batteries. This emphasizes even more the role of lithium recycling for future raw material availability and for significant reduction of the depletion of current lithium reserves.

Although recycling of retired LIB is implemented at the moment, the current recycling situation for EV batteries is not cost-efficient. Industrial scale technologies such as pyrolysis are focused on the recovery of the more valuable materials Co and Ni whereas lithium ends up in the slags [21,22]. Even if it might be possible to recover lithium from these slags, this process is not executed at present due to a lack of profitability, instead the slag containing lithium is used for non-automotive purposes such as construction or sold in the open markets [19,37,45]. It is not competitive for recycling companies to extract lithium from slag or reasonable for battery manufacturers to buy at higher price points from recycling companies, regarding the low raw material price in relation to recycling costs. The greater recycling potential for Co is also favored by a relatively high commodity price [20]. Given that reserves of Co are smaller than for Li the availability of Co can already be a concern for large scale adoption of lithium batteries in the short term [15].

However, since available pyrolysis can recover Co, there is no pressing need for changing recycling processes yet. But new battery technologies (e.g. NCA, NMC) use less Co and even battery technologies without Co such as LFP or Li-S are existing. On the contrary, lithium is an essential component of LIB-traction batteries and there is no alternative battery technology in place as an adequate substitute for LIB in EV. Since Li is not substitutable in LIB, recycling processes for EV batteries need to be designed more efficiently.

The recovery of lithium from pyrolysis slag is not likely to be cost effective, and thus circular flows of lithium will require alternative recycling processes. Both hydrothermal and direct physical recycling can achieve this goal. Nevertheless, battery recycling including lithium recovery will only happen if it becomes valuable for the recycling company. One possibility is that the raw material price rises to increase the revenue from secondary material highly enough to make the recycling process attractive. In the case of lithium, the results show that an exponential price trend of raw materials would be needed for the value of recovered lithium to be high enough to cope for recycling costs or even make the process profitable for the recycling company.

Therefore, it is only logical to develop alternative strategies for increasing the revenues from recycled materials apart from subsidies or governmental regulations. A shift to direct physical recycling could provide a large revenue boost for Ni/Co materials and represent a radical improvement for other cathode materials. The process of direct physical recycling is not as dependent on scale as pyrolysis or hydrothermal approaches, which could have radical implications for end of life logistics; recycling may thus be possible in large cities, rather than sticking to few large recycling sites for the whole EU.

In this regard, cities may provide opportunities or even business models to foster lithium recycling owing to strong interests for electrification of urban transportation. The growing pressure on air quality in urban areas (WHO, 2016) [46] will create additional incentives for the use of EV in cities [47]. First influencing municipal councils such as Stuttgart (starting 2018) or Paris (until 2020) have already plans to ban diesel engines from their streets in the coming years. Vehicle fleets dedicated to short distances in the urban traffic are predestined to adopt electric vehicles: local energy providers, logistics companies or mail and delivery services, even municipal administrations themselves with their technical departments and affiliated companies (public transports, car-sharing in Paris, waste management, public spaces management etc.) are already buyers. A municipality of a middle-sized city owns hundreds of vehicles that never leave the area. Powerful cities also influence taxi fleets and are pushing hybrid and electric solutions, such as Geneva and London do.

Furthermore, cities are eager to improve or defend their attractiveness, for which environmental factors definitely play a role. Environmental health, including air quality, noise pollution and climatic responsibility have a strong influence on the quality of life and the capacity to keep or attract educated social groups. Cities such as Freiburg-im-Breisgau, Nantes or Malmö became very popular “green cities” for having changed the rules of urban planning with pioneer “ecodistricts” (Districts Vauban in Freiburg, Île de Nantes in Nantes and Bo01 in Malmö). The competition for image and reputation is intense between cities and new mobility concepts are part of it: it is likely that ambitious e-mobility programs will play a role after the diesel-gate scandals in 2017.

Subsequently, in an environment like this, lithium recycling from batteries could make sense even before the global market prices match the costs of recycling processes. Considering the hypothesis that a municipal authority, holding its own recycling company (or shares in it) and looking to make new ambitious steps towards its sustainability policy would want to invest in lithium recycling, several options could be combined to come up with a workable business model. First, a large acquisition of EV for its own fleet eventually combined with incentives and/or regulations encouraging the local use of EV (privileged driving areas, selection criteria for public markets and partnerships, etc.) would start a local life cycle of batteries. The business-model of battery recycling is different for a municipality or its utilities, comparing to private companies. Existing recycling utilities could benefit from the new activity and from the (mostly) local origin of the retired batteries, reducing transportation costs and improving the anticipation of capacity needs. The investment in municipal fleets may provide a critical stock size, which can be increased by local incentive mechanisms for companies and citizens (EV-parking and traffic exceptions, subsidies, local climate plans, etc.). After the estimated average lifetime of 10 years for traction batteries in EV, a second-use cycle could be the game changer. The combined development of decentralized renewable energy sources and smart grids opens the door to stationary battery use. For such stationary applications, a 10-years lifetime can be assumed, because stationary use will be less stressful and more easily controlled and monitored compared to high-demand mobile applications [48]. Depending on the energy price structure, first forecasts suggest that the return-on-invest rates for stationary batteries are likely to increase. The capacity to make electricity available when the production is low and the demand is high already provides benefits at a large scale. As many smart grid projects are exploring the opportunity to increase the frequency on the SPOT markets, but also to develop local energy markets offering a better response to a more and more decentralized energy system, local storage capacities may become very attractive in a near future [49]. This second use would at least double the lifetime of the purchased batteries and therefore largely improve their return-on-invest. If their owner is also the owner of the recycling unit, the second use may become part of the recycling cost calculation and thus increase the competitiveness of lithium recycling. Both the first (mobile) and the second (stationary) life cycles could easily be monitored, improving the capacity management and the accuracy of investment decisions. The rising interest of municipalities for circular economy concepts shows that such hypothesis are not very far-fetched.

The needs of urban resilience can also be matched with stationary battery capacities [50]. The supply of critical amenities and infrastructures in cases of black-outs is the most obvious example. The improvement of electricity supply and its quality in unstable areas or for the self-consumption of RES (which implies a filtered and stable provision) are potential applications as well. Innovative real-estate investors are already experimenting on this field for the new generation of “green districts” in Europe.

Nevertheless, the influence of cities is often overseen by manufacturing companies, which are focusing their attention on centralized regulators to validate their technologies. However, municipal mandates are very close to citizens and local policies are reflecting this. On climate issues cities are not only expressing their expectations and pressurizing international negotiations (e.g., Summit and declaration of Copenhagen in 2009, Declaration of Paris in 2015), they are organizing themselves in networks with detailed goals. The European Convenant of Mayors launched in 2008, EnergyCities or ICLEI, the C40Cities are some of the leading urban networks of influence: their credibility is based on ambitious self-commitments, which are submitted to monitoring and reporting duties. In France, the influence of trend-making cities such as Grenoble, Nantes and Mulhouse prior to and during national consultations (Grenelle de l’Environnement) led to a legal obligation for all French cities to design and adopt local climate plans (Loi Grenelle 2). Companies with more than 500 employees are now submitted to this legislation too.

In Amsterdam, which was the first city to introduce a systematic onshore-power supply obligation for individual boats, the pricing of parking slots in the center has been drastically increased but declared free of charge for electric vehicles. There is no doubt that this model will be replicated in many places, as the interurban communication channels for best practices are permanently stimulated by networks, conferences and EU-funded projects.

This hypothesis still needs to be explored and verified, but it is showing that the context of sustainable cities is creating conditions likely to make lithium recycling possible. The strong impulses set by cities in the past 20 years to strengthen the fight against climate change are an indicator of their innovation will − and their ability to experiment new approaches before the market does.


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Cite this article as: Saskia Ziemann, Christoph Rat-Fischer, Daniel B. Müller, Liselotte Schebek, Jens Peters, Marcel Weil, A critical analysis of material demand and recycling options of electric vehicles in sustainable cities, Matériaux & Techniques 105, 515 (2017)

All Tables

Table 1

Characteristics and applications of different types of lithium-based batteries (data sources: Pistoia 2014; Buchmann 2017; Korthauer 2013; Friedrich 2012 [710]).

Caractéristiques et applications de différents types de batteries au lithium.

Table 2

Overview of input data and references for modeling future lithium demand.

Vue d’ensemble des données utilisées et des références pour la modélisation de la demande future de lithium.

All Figures

thumbnail Fig. 1

Ragone Plot of different battery technologies showing their individual performance owing to energy and power density [3].

Diagramme de Ragone de différentes technologies de batteries montrant leur performance individuelle en énergie et en densité énergétique [3].

In the text
thumbnail Fig. 2

The applied dynamic model of the global lithium cycle.

Modèle dynamique appliqué au cycle global lithium.

In the text
thumbnail Fig. 3

Lithium price development assuming different trends based on the production and price increase between 2000 and 2015 (Data sources: USGS 2002–2017 [42]).

Développement du prix du lithium selon différentes tendances basées sur la progression de la production et des prix entre 2000 et 2015 (Sources des données : USGS 2002–2017 [42]).

In the text
thumbnail Fig. 4

Simulated future demand of lithium for EV batteries (NCA-type) and the share covered by primary and secondary Li production assuming different price trends.

Simulation de la demande future de lithium pour les batteries VE (type-NCA [Nickel-Cobalt-Aluminium]) et des parts couvertes par les productions de Li primaire et secondaire selon différentes évolutions des prix.

In the text
thumbnail Fig. 5

Simulated development of lithium flows for EV batteries (NCA-type) assuming different trends in raw material prices of primary lithium.

Développement simulé des flux de lithium pour batteries VE (type-NCA) selon différentes évolutions du prix du lithium primaire brut.

In the text

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