Re-use of EV batteries in China

Sustainable recycling and recovery of EV batteries in China.

The proper recycling and recovery of EV batteries have become even more crucial as demand for lithium (Li-ion) batteries has increased alongside the growing adoption of EV vehicles.

Data shows that the global scale of Li-ion battery recycling is projected to rise from $1.5 billion in 2019 to $18 billion by 2030. As the world’s largest e-vehicle market, China undoubtedly faces new opportunities. CGTN reporter Huang Yichang visited a major player in this sector to learn more.

Around 2016, the Chinese EV industry entered a period of rapid growth, and since 2021, there has been a notable increase in ‘end-of-life’ batteries falling into disuse. By 2022, the capacity of decommissioned batteries had reached a total of 34.5 gigawatt-hours (GWh) – or 277,000 tonnes. It is forecast to reach 116 GWh – around 780,000 tonnes – by 2025.

Re-use and repurposing EV batteries

EV batteries are typically usable for five to eight years. Once the battery deteriorates to 70-80 per cent of its original capacity, there’s no real way for it to satisfactorily power an EV. However these batteries still have additional usable capacity – an estimated 80% of the original rated capacity. This means that if the battery was manufactured to store 100 kWh, it can now store up to 80 kWh. In order to make use of the remaining capacity, the batteries can be broken down to salvage smaller components for reuse and refurbishment, or they can be repurposed and used in a less demanding application, such as stationary storage.

Scientists say that stationary storage repurposing of end-of-life EV batteries can be used for renewable energy generation support. Multiple EV batteries can be connected together, along with battery monitoring and cooling technology, to create a larger battery that is about the size of a shipping container. The battery stores solar energy generated during the day, and supplies electricity at high-demand times (e.g in the evening). As the grid becomes cleaner, added grid storage becomes more necessary to support the generation variability of renewable sources. These used batteries are a viable way to both extend the lifespan of a product that has already been manufactured and support the renewable energy transition. After this second-life use, the batteries are then ready to be recycled.

Recycling EV batteries

Power batteries contain substances that are harmful to the environment, such as heavy metals and electrolytes, as research by Energy Foundation China highlights. If sent to landfill, these could leak into the ground and upset the pH balance in the soil, threatening ecologies and human health.

Recycling batteries doesn’t just help to reduce this kind of pollution. There is also a pressing need for it, as the EV industry’s demand for batteries increases by the day. Battery production requires several crucial resources for which China has limited supplies, including nickel, cobalt and lithium. China is the world’s largest consumer and importer of lithium, with 65 per cent of demand relying on imports. Effective recycling would reduce this dependency on imports, guaranteeing supply, while also alleviating the negative effects of extracting raw materials at home and abroad.

Who is responsible for recycling EV batteries in China?

The Chinese government recognises the importance of recycling EV batteries, and as early as 2012 the State Council proposed drafting a means of managing battery recycling and reuse, and of establishing a management system for tiered reuse and recycling. 

In 2017, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and three other ministry-level administrations released an action plan promoting development of the EV battery industry. The plan stated that battery recycling is an area of focus that the government will support.

In China, the Provisional Measures on the Recycling and Repurposing of EV Power Storage Batteries stipulates that EV manufacturers bear the primary responsibility for recycling old batteries and should establish a network of recycling service centres, based on their sales network, that can collect them. Stored batteries can then be transferred to recycling business with whom they have agreed partnerships.

A recent article in China Dialogue argues is clear that battery manufacturers, car companies and recycling firms would ideally form their own closed loops. Car companies could directly receive disused batteries from consumers across a comprehensive sales network before passing them onto third-party specialists for recycling. Recycling companies could then extract materials such as lithium, cobalt, and nickel to sell back to manufacturers for making new batteries.

However, once a vehicle has been sold to a consumer, the battery becomes the consumer’s property. How then are manufacturers to take on the responsibility of effectively recycling old batteries?

To achieve a breakthrough as soon as possible, some manufacturers are exploring commercial models. EV manufacturer Nio is launching a “battery-lease” scheme that sees people rent batteries rather than own them. The car becomes the property of the consumer but the rights to the battery belong to a third party, thereby preventing the consumer from selling it on. In a 2021 article for China Dialogue, Yang Muyi, associate director of clean energy at the Asia Society Policy Institute, proposed measures such as deposit return schemes or subsidies to encourage consumers to turn over batteries to the approved channels, limiting the space for black-market operators.

In addition, the China Dialogue article sees key supervisory responsibilities which government should also take on . As the world’s largest producer of batteries and largest market for EVs, China has already launched a platform for tracing batteries. Every vehicle battery produced in, or imported into, China has a unique serial number, which can be used to help follow the battery and deal with it appropriately throughout its lifecycle.

Yang Muyi said this tracing platform aims to build the foundations of a standardised battery-recycling system. Battery producers, car companies and retailers, and battery repurposing and recycling companies, are all expected to update information on the platform in a timely manner, ensuring that disused batteries are ultimately dealt with appropriately.