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Britain faces 'waste battery mountain' as electric car use surges

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 08/11/2019 Charles Hymas
An electric car is seen charging at a charging point on the street in Westminster, central London, UK on January 11, 2019 (photo by Vickie Flores/In Pictures via Getty Images) © Vickie Flores An electric car is seen charging at a charging point on the street in Westminster, central London, UK on January 11, 2019 (photo by Vickie Flores/In Pictures via Getty Images)

Britain faces a new waste crisis from a “ battery mountain” caused by the growing use of electric cars, according to an academic study.

Researchers have calculated that the one million electric cars sold in 2017 alone will produce 250,000 metric tons, or half a million cubic metres, of unprocessed battery pack waste when they reach the end of their lives in seven to ten years’ time, enough to fill 67 Olympic swimming pools. 

At present, the one million cars account for just 1.3 per cent of annual worldwide sales but it is projected that electric cars could make up more than half of all new sales by 2040 as part of efforts to combat climate change.

Video: Breakthrough with electric car batteries could reduce charging time to 10 minutes (The Independent)

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The researchers say landfill is not an option for waste lithium batteries which are flammable and could release toxic chemicals such as cobalt, nickel and magnesium into the environment.

Professor Andrew Abbott, of Leicester University and co-author of the paper, said it was vital to find ways of recycling the batteries to safeguard the environment and extra precious metals and materials that could be reused.

 "Electrification of just two per cent of the current global car fleet would represent a line of cars that could stretch around the circumference of the Earth - some 140 million vehicles. Landfill is clearly not an option for this amount of waste,” he said.

A BMW i3 electric car charging in an electric vehicle bay on Cavendish Square, central London, United Kingdom. The POLAR charging Network has over 6,000 charging points across the United Kingdom.  (photo by Andrew Aitchison / In pictures via Getty Images) © Andrew Aitchison A BMW i3 electric car charging in an electric vehicle bay on Cavendish Square, central London, United Kingdom. The POLAR charging Network has over 6,000 charging points across the United Kingdom. (photo by Andrew Aitchison / In pictures via Getty Images)

“Finding ways to recycle EV batteries will not only avoid a huge burden on landfill, it will also help us secure the supply of critical materials, such as cobalt and lithium, that surely hold the key to a sustainable automotive industry."

One option could be to use batteries that are no longer powerful enough for a car to do less demanding tasks such as store electricity from wind turbines and solar farms.

The report also said better ways to gauge the health of a battery would make it easier to assess whether they could be reused or repaired.

Gallery: Here's Every 2019 and 2020 Electric Car and SUV (Car and Driver )

But most important, it said, would be to develop recycling techniques similar to those for lead batteries, where 100 per cent of the materials are recycled.

Dr Gavin Harper, of Birmingham University and lead author on the paper, said: “As well as lithium, these batteries contain a number of other valuable metals, such as cobalt, nickel and manganese, and there is the potential to improve the processes which are currently used to recover these for reuse." 

Research suggests eight factories will be needed in the UK by 2040 to cope with the surge in electric car use.

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