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Bacteria – yes, bacteria – could be the key to recycling EV batteries

There are more than 1.4 billion cars in the world today, and that number could double by 2036. If all those cars burn petrol or diesel, the climate consequences will be dire. Electric cars emit fewer air pollutants and if they’re powered by renewable energy, driving one wouldn’t add to the greenhouse gases warming Earth’s atmosphere.

But producing so many electric vehicles (often abbreviated to EVs) in a decade would cause a surge in demand for metals like lithium, cobalt, nickel and manganese. These metals are essential for making EV batteries, but they’re not found everywhere. Most of the world’s lithium lies under the Atacama Desert in South America, where mining threatens local people and ecosystems.

Leading manufacturers of EVs need to keep import costs low and find a reliable source of these raw materials. Mining the deep sea is one option, but it could also damage habitats and endanger wildlife. At the same time, waste electronics filled with precious metals are piling up in landfills and in some of the world’s poorest regions – with 2.5 million tonnes added to the total each year.

EV batteries themselves only have a shelf life of eight to ten years. Lithium-ion batteries are currently recycled at a meagre rate of less than 5% in the EU. Instead of mining new sources of these metals, why not reuse what’s already out there?

The recycling economy

The largest lithium-ion battery recyclers are based in China. While recycling is often treated as an obligation that companies should be paid to do in North America and Europe, competition is so intense for dead batteries in China that recyclers are willing to pay to get their hands on them.

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