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Circular economy strategies for electric vehicle batteries reduce reliance on raw materials

Abstract

The wide adoption of lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles will require increased natural resources for the automotive industry. The expected rapid increase in batteries could result in new resource challenges and supply-chain risks. To strengthen the resilience and sustainability of automotive supply chains and reduce primary resource requirements, circular economy strategies are needed. Here we illustrate how these strategies can reduce the extraction of primary raw materials, that is, cobalt supplies. Material flow analysis is applied to understand current and future flows of cobalt embedded in electric vehicle batteries across the European Union. A reference scenario is presented and compared with four strategies: technology-driven substitution and technology-driven reduction of cobalt, new business models to stimulate battery reuse/recycling and policy-driven strategy to increase recycling. We find that new technologies provide the most promising strategies to reduce the reliance on cobalt substantially but could result in burden shifting such as an increase in nickel demand. To avoid the latter, technological developments should be combined with an efficient recycling system. We conclude that more-ambitious circular economy strategies, at both government and business levels, are urgently needed to address current and future resource challenges across the supply chain successfully.

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Fig. 1: Annual cobalt price and production from 1950 to 2019.
Fig. 2: Global cobalt flows from mine to European EV in 2017.
Fig. 3: Co and Ni demand for European EVs in a rapid adoption of high-Ni cathodes.
Fig. 4: Total demand and supply of cobalt for EVs in the European Union for all strategies.

Data availability

All the data that were used for this study are available as supplementary tables in the Supplementary Information file. Additional questions about the data can be directed to the corresponding author.

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Acknowledgements

This research was kindly supported by the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM), the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the Faraday Institution (EP/S003053/1) and its Recycling of Li-Ion Batteries (ReLIB) project (FIRG005), and Newcastle University. We can confirm that none of the funders had input or a role to play in the conceptualization, design, data collection, analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the study or this manuscript. An early draft of this work was presented as a poster, winning first prize, at the International Society of Industrial Ecology Conference (Beijing, China) in July 2019.

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J.B. initiated the study and conducted the research under guidance of T.D., R.B. and O.H. Data were collected by J.B. and analysed by J.B., T.D., O.H. and H.E.M. The first draft was written by J.B. under guidance of O.H. Additional background information was provided by H.E.M. The manuscript was edited by T.D., O.H., H.E.M. and R.B. The writing and publication process, correspondence between authors, editors, revision and publication was led by O.H. All authors are responsible for the contributions to the manuscript from the research, data, code and materials presented in the manuscript, Supplementary Information and Methods.

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Correspondence to Oliver Heidrich.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary methods, Figs. 1–5, and Tables 1 and 12–20.

Supplementary Tables

Underlying data for Fig. 1 (Supplementary Tables 2–11).

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Baars, J., Domenech, T., Bleischwitz, R. et al. Circular economy strategies for electric vehicle batteries reduce reliance on raw materials. Nat Sustain 4, 71–79 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-020-00607-0

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