The circularity of electric cars? A goal still far away

From 2035, only zero-emission cars and vans will be able to be sold throughout the EU, therefore with 100% electric or hydrogen engines. This is the main news that has come in recent days from the European Parliament, which has approved a halt to the sale of petrol, diesel and LPG cars. The measure in question – part of the package Fits 55 will now have to review the controls of each Member State.

In short, the trail may still be rough, but the road still appears to be tracked. In fact, the automotive industry has been involved in the development of electric mobility, as well as connected, autonomous and shared. The number of companies that have invested and plan to invest in a circular approach to production is constantly growing (here is an overview of recent developments).

However, in addition to car manufacturers, governments and citizens are also urged to do their part to overcome the critical problems associated with the adoption of this technological innovation. Effective initiatives are needed to promote new mobility, guarantees infrastructure and incentives. That problem finding raw materials and guarantees new life for batteries and other components in electric vehicles in a circular manner.

Let’s give some numbers

The European Union is the third largest producer of CO2 in the world, and only cars represent 12% of all emissions, while the whole transport sector accounts for a quarter of the total. Under the Green Deal agreements, Europe is called for reduce car emissions by 90% by 2043to achieve climate neutrality by 2050.

The electric car is a rapidly growing market. 2020, the year of the pandemic, was also the year that recorded the best results, with one + 12% of the electric car market (hybrid and full electric). This growth was driven by buying incentives, but also by the increase in the supply of vehicles and the fall in prices.

The latter seems to be a key factor in the guide to consumer choice. Performance improvements will also contribute to greater dissemination. Already today, some models promise autonomy that may come up to 500 kilometers without having to recharge. Greater autonomy and lower prices, that is what can favor the rise of electric cars.

It is estimated that the price of batteries will continue to fall and eventually halve by 2030. On that date, according to a report by McKinsey and Bloomberg New Energy Finance on the future of sustainable urban mobility, 60% of the cars in circulation will be electric. Two out of three cars in big cities will run on battery power.

Also read: From garbage dumps to levers to the automotive industry’s circular economy. A possible goal

The Italian market

In the last two years, registrations of electric cars in Italy have recorded extraordinary figures, in line with what is happening internationally. In 2021, sales of PHEV (Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vechicles) and BEV (Battery Electric Vehicles) vehicles reached 7.7% of the total number (over 68,000 vehicles). A market share eleven times higher than two years ago.

The electrified models for sale are also growing – almost sixfold since 2015, with an acceleration in the last three years – and public charging infrastructures. The latter are essential to help spread and overcome “autonomy anxiety”, at least until the new generation of cars is prominently present in the market.

The ability to easily recharge your vehicle will further push market growth. If they per. December 31, 2021 is in Italy over 26 thousand charging points installed in about 13 thousand infrastructures, see Report on smart mobility 2020 by the Politecnico di Milano estimates, for 2030, between 57 thousand (basic scenario) and 83 thousand charging points (accelerated scenario) on national territory.

The report on electric mobility prepared by PoliMi predicts that every seventh car in 2030 will be electric, and more than half of the new registrations (55%) will relate to electric cars, for a total of about 5 and a half million vehicles in circulation.

Also read: How to recycle and recycle 95% of the materials that make up a car that needs to be scrapped. In 6 steps

Circularity problems

The greater prevalence of electric mobility will lead to the inevitable increase in the demand for energy, which to date is still predominantly guaranteed by fossil fuels. The environmental benefits of having electric cars on the road therefore risk being abolished in the short term, at least until the transition to renewable energy is accelerated.

In addition, electric cars despite the use of clean energy a strong environmental impact due to the need to find metals, minerals and rare earths for the battery and electrical and electronic components;. It is no coincidence that the lack of semiconductor chips during the pandemic led to delays in car production.

But I certainly am the batteries to represent the significant part of the problem that requires critical raw materials – including lithium, cobalt and graphite – with a very strong environmental impact for their extraction. Not to mention the geopolitical problems associated with countries like our dependence on world powers such as China, Russia and the United States for the procurement of these resources (an in-depth study on urban mining).

To partially overcome this problem, California startup KoBold Metals, for example, uses artificial intelligence to map the subsurface and identify the presence of useful materials such as cobalt and nickel needed for batteries for electric vehicles. For the same reasons, the startup The Metals Company is experimenting with robotic vehicles that should be able to collect these materials from the seabed.

The more electric cars in circulation, the greater the demand for raw materials. But also the amount of batteries to be disposed of in a circular economy perspective. It will therefore be essential not only to find raw materials, but to reinsert the materials that make up the batteries at the end of their life in the economic cycle. A process that is currently still complicated from a technical point of view and particularly cumbersome.

A team of researchers from the US Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory is working on a robotic separation system that can simplify the process of disposing and recycling batteries. The goal is to be able to safely and efficiently reuse and reuse critical battery materials, reducing toxic waste.

Read also: From MiTE 741 million euros for charging electric cars. But there are also critical issues

How to extend battery life

The problem, therefore, is not only the availability of resources, but what percentage can we regain at the end of life to obtain secondary raw materials useful for feeding the production cycle.

Under ideal conditions, it has been estimated that the recycling of end-of-life electric vehicle batteries could provide the 60% cobalt, 53% lithium, 57% manganese and 53% nickel needed globally by 2040. Today, according to Eurostat, materials such as cobalt and lithium have zero recycling rates.

In addition to recycling, it will be important to focus on one longer service life for repair and maintenance. And also on recycling: used car batteries still reach a capacity of 70-80%. Instead of reusing them, they could be used in other sectors, such as renewable energy.

Components that no longer work but are not used up can be integrated into the electrical infrastructure thanks to technology vehicle-to-network (V2G), which acts as backup cells for the entire network. They could thus be used to store energy or to charge cars, which helps to increase the distribution of renewable energy in the electricity system.

Last January, a project was launched by the Australian Research Center for the Energy Transformation Race for 2030, which aims to harness artificial intelligence in the management of electric vehicles and in the optimization of V2G resources.

The German Bundesverband Erneuerbare Energie has tried to calculate the benefits of recycling batteries. Given the battery size of 40 kWh, a secondary life of 80% and battery replacement after 7 years, one million electric cars on the road would be 25 GWh “used” storage capacity in 2025. By 2030, capacity is expected to quadruple up to 100 GWh: that is, able to meet the needs of all of Germany in two hours.

Also read: From refurbished spare parts to battery recycling: carmakers are experimenting with circularity

For truly circular electric mobility

It is therefore important for the sector to take a more comprehensive approach, dealing with the entire life cycle of electric mobility, from raw materials to recycling, from the production of renewable energy to the marketing of the vehicle. For electric vehicles, a circular approach is needed right from their production, to reduce their environmental impact at the end of their service life. Repair, reuse, remanufacturing and reuse can extend the life of electric vehicles and their components.

The transition to electric vehicles should be guided by circular economy policies and strategies that allow for a systemic approach. Europe has moved in this direction by putting one Road map, define common standards and aim at developing the necessary infrastructure. A new regulation on batteries was also proposed in 2020, which aims to increase transparency, traceability and accountability throughout the life cycle of the battery, and also specifies the recycling rates for lithium, cobalt and nickel and the targets for the use of the materials. .

At the national level, this is certainly good news, ie 38 billion allocated by the NRP (approximately 20% of the available funds) for sustainable mobility. The renewal of purchase incentives is also good at 650 million a year for three years until 2024. At the same time, the government must work to promote new mobility by speeding up the development of public infrastructure and working towards the construction of a private charging. network.

According to a study by the Capgemini Research Institute, the automotive industry has an advantage over other sectors in terms of complying with global sustainability standards, but the government is urged to address the uncertainty that still surrounds this sector, to finally take final steps towards restructuring the sector .

Also read: The car changes skins. Also thanks to the circular economy

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