By pushing electric mobility under the Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of (Hybrid and) Electric Vehicles Phase II or FAME-II scheme and setting an ambitious target of generating 175 gigawatts of power from renewable energy by 2022, India has made clear its intent to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The government’s target to ensure that at least 15% of the vehicles in the country are electric by 2030 is aimed at reducing vehicular pollution – transport accounts for about 11% of India’s carbon emissions – and dependence on crude oil imports.

Electric vehicles are expected to account for 30% of vehicle sales in India by 2030. Apart from environmental gains, this transition is likely to save crude oil imports worth Rs 1,07,566 crore, estimated a report by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water, a Delhi-based think tank.

The rapid adoption of EVs, however, will also mean an increase in the consumption of lithium-ion batteries – rechargeable batteries used in a number of industries, including automotive and consumer electronics – and the subsequent rise in the number of spent batteries that would require environmentally sound end-of-life handling.

Here is a look at current policies on handling lithium-ion batteries used in EVs, what happens when such batteries reach their life’s end and why it is important for India to have a proactive plan to manage its battery waste.

End-of-life management

Electric vehicles run on lithium-ion or Li-ion batteries that store energy and can be recharged. The batteries used in these vehicles – from two-wheelers to commercial vehicles and public transport buses – are largely the same. However, their composition and size change from vehicle to vehicle, depending on the power necessary to run them. Batteries are stacked together in cells and modules to make a battery pack.

These batteries are chiefly made up of lithium, cobalt, nickel, iron, copper and aluminium. The life of an EV battery ranges between six and eight years and needs replacement when its capacity starts falling below 80%, entrepreneurs and professionals working in the field of battery assembly told IndiaSpend. The life of a battery also depends on the frequency of the EV use, they added.

Depending on the chemistry, size, configuration and purpose, a lithium-ion battery can perform between 500 and over 10,000 cycles of charging and discharging, said a report on recycling of lithium-ion batteries by JMK Research and Analytics, a research analytics firm.

Once they begin losing their capacity, EV batteries can be managed in two ways: they can be repurposed for secondary applications or they can be sent for recycling directly and metals can be recovered from them using technology, industry experts explained.

“When an electric vehicle battery reaches its end of life of its vehicle service, it can be repurposed as a stationary battery and utilised for backup power for residential, commercial, industrial users, or as renewable power integration battery,” said Shyam Ragupathy, CEO of the electric mobility division at Rajesh Exports Ltd.

The group specialises in battery pack assembly, and EV design and manufacturing. It has signed preliminary agreements with the governments of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka to make EVs and lithium-ion batteries. “This is possible because the batteries retired from electric vehicles could still retain 70% to 80% of their initial capacity. This way we can extend the life of the battery for another three to five years, and then it can be given to recyclers,” Ragupathy said.

Representational image. Photo credit: AFP

Recycling market

Currently, there are nearly 2,50,000 EVs on the road that use lithium-ion batteries, according to the Society of Manufacturers of Electric Vehicles, a Delhi-based EV manufacturers’ body. Of these, two-wheelers account for 80% or 2,00,000 vehicles, three-wheelers are nearly 25,000-30,000 and the rest are four-wheelers, said Alok Ray, assistant director of operations at Society of Manufacturers of Electric Vehicles.

The recycling market is likely to see more generation of end-of-life batteries from 2022-’23 onwards as the annual lithium-ion battery market is expected to grow at a compounded annual growth rate of 37.5%, according to the JMK Research and Analytics report.

More important is the estimate that by 2030, EV batteries are expected to account for an 80% market share in the lithium-ion battery market. At present, the EV segment accounts for a 35% market share of lithium-ion batteries, according to the report (the rest being used in the telecom sector, in data centres, and in street lights and other small consumer applications).

Despite some projections of growth in the EV battery-management sector, recycling companies say challenges of collection and investment risks remain. “We are in the process of setting up a facility for recycling EV batteries and automobiles,” said BK Soni, chairperson and managing director of Ecoreco, a Mumbai-based recycling company. “However, generation [of batteries] is not going to be high immediately and collection remains a challenge. The demand will see a spurt after four years or so when EVs roll out in large volume.”

Owing to the paucity of mineral resources used in making lithium-ion batteries, India mostly imports lithium-ion cells and batteries, though some companies are assembling batteries from imported cells. A few large companies, such as Panasonic, are exploring setting up a Li-ion battery module unit in India.

In August 2020, the Delhi government brought out an EV policy. The policy says that 1,000 electric-only buses have to be inducted into the city fleet, including for last-mile connectivity. The Delhi government also wants to ensure that “pure” e-buses constitute at least 50% of all new public transport buses with 15 seats or more. (Pure e-buses use only electricity, as opposed to hybrid vehicles that use diesel as well as electricity.)

If Delhi inducts 1,400 e-buses in its public transport fleet, it may have to tackle an equal number of large battery packs by 2027-’28, estimated Chintan, a Delhi-based nonprofit that works on solid waste management issues.

Government regulation

As of today, lithium-ion or lithium batteries are not covered under the Batteries (Management and Handling) Rules of 2010. Brought out for the first time back in 2001, the rules limited the definition of a battery to a “lead acid battery”.

Li-ion batteries are covered under the E-Waste (Management) Rules, 2016 – indirectly, as it turns out. Schedule I of the Rules has spelt out broad categories of electrical and electronic equipment that are covered, including computers, laptops, notebooks and cellular phones as well as their components, consumables, parts and spares. However, the E-waste Rules also do not specifically cover lithium-ion batteries.

The insides of a lithium-ion battery. Photo credit: Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP

However, a new draft regulation – Battery Waste Management Rules, 2020 – is on the anvil. The draft was made public in February 2020 but is still being deliberated. It will cover a wide range of batteries, from disposable alkaline and mercury batteries to rechargeable ones such as Li-ion and nickel-cadmium ones.

The draft has also clearly defined a “battery pack” and “industrial battery”. EV batteries are covered under the definition of “industry battery” which is designed as a source of power for “propulsion in an electric vehicle”. The final notification of the draft got delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic and EV industry insiders say these rules are likely to be notified in a few months’ time.

Like the E-Waste Management Rules, the new draft explains in detail the responsibility of the battery manufacturer. These responsibilities range from setting up battery-waste collection centres and take-back systems to affixing targets for battery-waste collection from two to seven years after the rules come into effect.

Ecosystem is necessary

The composition of EV batteries, which includes a significant component of scarce metals such as lithium, cobalt and nickel, makes repurposing and recovery of batteries an imperative in the long run. Reserves of lithium, cobalt and nickel are concentrated in a few countries. About 58% of the world’s lithium reserves are in Chile and about 43% of rare earth mineral reserves are in China, according to this Council on Energy, Environment and Water report. When it comes to cobalt, the Democratic Republic of Congo has the largest reserves in the world, at approximately 3.6 million metric tons.

Owing to this skewed concentration globally, India has to import lithium batteries in huge quantities. In fact, this is one of the main reasons that India does not manufacture lithium-ion cells and batteries at scale.

In 2019-’20, India imported 450 million units of lithium batteries (used in a range of electrical equipment, products and EVs) valued at Rs 6,600 crore ($929.26 million), Union Minister of Science and Technology and Earth Sciences Harsh Vardhan informed Lok Sabha on February 7, 2020.

Businesses dealing in the repurposing of EV batteries said that some of the materials recovered are exported to South Korea and Japan. “There is lithium in these batteries which can be recovered as lithium carbonate or lithium hydroxide, graphite forms the anodes, and then there are steel casings and plastic as well,” said Rohan Singh, founder and director, Ziptrax, a Delhi-based startup. “We have exported some of these materials to companies in Korea and Japan who refine them and use them back in batteries.”

Meanwhile, electric mobility researchers said the government should come out with incentives for handling batteries before EV penetration increases. “Battery is a valuable resource, not waste as such,” said Abhinav Soman, programme associate, Council on Energy, Environment and Water. “If you create the right incentive, you can create an ecosystem. I would emphasise creating the right ecosystem so that the battery reaches recycling.”

Risks in dumping

EV batteries consist of multiple lithium-ion cells and modules which are made up of heavy metals such as cobalt, lithium, nickel and manganese. Lithium-ion batteries and their end-of-life management is not a new challenge. Mobile phones and other consumer electronics already use these batteries. However, with a policy push from the government for electric mobility, the consequent rise in spent batteries from EVs, if not recycled, will be both an environmental threat and an opportunity lost.

Spent batteries contain toxic and/or flammable materials. Handling of these batteries by untrained persons in the informal waste-management sector can trigger fires.

Soil and water contamination is another possible fallout if spent batteries end up in landfills. Metals can leach into the soil and consequently groundwater, according to a paper published by the Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute.

Dumping of spent batteries is also a lost economic opportunity, according to an article by the Observer Research Foundation. Recycling, recovery and repurposing of lithium-ion batteries can create a circular economy and reduce dependence on resources and materials used to make these batteries.

This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.