GTA5

Circular economy and India’s electric mobility initiative

Summary Points:

  • The recently announced PLI scheme for manufacture of advanced batteries was long overdue for realizing India’s EV mission.
  • This push by the government is technologically agnostic, as it doesn’t limit battery chemistry. This will produce a variety of batteries with varying physical and chemical parameters. However, this heterogeneity of batteries may prove to be a roadblock in recycling.
  • Therefore, a standardized approach will be needed to develop infrastructure including localization of recycling activities, funding and innovation in technologies, and adoption of ‘design for recyclability approach’.

In our pursuit to reach net-zero carbon emission by 2050, electric vehicles (EVs) have emerged as an important contender to bring down emissions by a significant amount. A complete transition of all automobiles into electric will bring down greenhouse-gas (GHG) emission by 7 billion tons of CO2 equivalent per year which is around 14% of the total GHG emission generated annually. However, with the rising number of EVs, the demand for components, specifically batteries, would also increase.  According to a study conducted by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), the cumulative EV sales is likely to pass 100 million units by 2030. This is expected to produce around 4-5 million tonnes of unprocessed battery waste when these batteries are discarded. Spent batteries pose a threat to the environment but  also presents us with potential economic benefits related to critical metals such as cobalt and nickel. Therefore, recycling needs to be pursued with a twin objective of reducing environmental impacts and reducing imports of critical minerals by strengthening domestic production of such minerals through recycling, thereby achieving ‘atmanirbharta’.

In this regard, the recently announced production linked incentive (PLI) scheme for manufacture of advanced batteries is technology agnostic in nature as it does not define batteries on the basis of their chemistry. The scheme rather defines advanced batteries on the basis of their superior energy density and longer life-cycle. It is expected that this policy push would lead to not just a huge number of batteries being produced domestically, but would also generate  greater heterogeneity in the types of batteries used especially in EVs. While this may seem manageable in the beginning, but once these batteries reach their end-of-life the stockpiles of waste batteries would need special strategies due to the variability of technology and associated safety risks during recycling.  It is only when these waste batteries  are recycled in a sustainable manner, can the electric mobility initiatives achieve sustainability in a real sense. 

Given the above, there are twin challenges that the industry would have to face in the foreseeable future, namely- (a) securing finance for setting up of recycling units capable of handling batteries with different technologies and vintages, and (b) technological breakthroughs required in recycling technology that improves recovery rates. It is expected that attracting investment and developing roadmaps for enhancing technological skills and capacity for recycling will be a game changer. As the Indian battery manufacturing and recycling market is still in embryonic stage, it provides us with both a challenge and an opportunity to develop an efficient ecosystem for sustainable mobility and to emerge as a global hub for manufacturing and recycling of advanced batteries. To promote this industry, the government should begin to support pilot projects and incentivise research and development both in battery manufacturing and recycling.

Currently, collection and transportation of batteries represents around 40 – 50% of the total recycling cost. To reduce this, there is a need for  localisation of recycling activities. If we pursue localisation of manufacturing and recycling of batteries, then setting up of multiple plants for recycling multiple types of batteries will be economically challenging. An alternative to this could be that a technology agnostic recycling ecosystem  be developed which would  consume all kinds of batteries. Setting-up of recycling plants along with manufacturing plants in a strategic and uniformly distributed manner will bring down the need for  long-range transportation, thereby bringing down the cost. Localisation will also generate local economic activity, given recycling will be a significant industry with a potential valuation of over $1000 million in future as reported by JMK Research.

Unfortunately, there are not enough stock of batteries to reach economies  of scale in recycling and thus industries are still sceptical about setting up recycling plants. Standardising battery shape and size to reduce costs is yet another challenge since batteries are manufactured to suit different applications. Additionally, differences in properties and performance provide a competitive advantage and intellectual property rights to manufacturers who are investing in battery research. This makes standardising nearly impossible in the short term. However the challenge in recycling can be solved if batteries are manufactured while keeping in mind the aspect of recyclability. Currently battery manufacturers are not pursuing ‘design for recyclability’ approach. If batteries are designed to be easy to recycle, they will offer competitive advantages in the long term. 

Given battery recycling needs to be more socially responsible, environment-friendly recycling technologies need to be developed with zero-carbon footprint on environment and making its life-cycle sustainable. If India looks to become a global hub for recycling of Lithium-ion Batteries (LIB), it will need a strong thrust on policy, funding and technological innovation.



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Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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