When Joanna Kyriazis bought a used 2021 Hyundai Kona Electric, she found it difficult to find out what the battery’s capacity was from the dealership. While Hyundai’s website says a new one can travel for more than 400 kilometres without being charged, her used car’s range topped out at 350 kilometres.
“Without widespread battery testing and dealership education, buyers are kind of in the dark as to what their EV battery health is like and what they can expect from their vehicles in terms of range — new or used,” says Kyriazis, who is the director of public affairs at Clean Energy Canada, a climate think tank based out of Simon Fraser University and one of the co-chairs of the battery task force at Accelerate, a zero-emission vehicle industrial alliance.
In fact, her car’s range increased to 365 kilometres once she brought it home. (The range, she explains, is basically the car’s estimate based on past driving habits and other factors.) Even once her car’s charge capacity dwindles to the point where it’s no longer sufficient to get from A to B, the battery would still have enough juice for other applications.
By 2035, all light-duty cars and passenger trucks sold in Canada must be zero-emission, and sales of EV and hybrid vehicles are steadily growing. In mid-2023, 10.5 percent of all car sales were zero-emission vehicles. Some analysts argue that Canada has now crossed a crucial tipping point that will trigger mass adoption.
That means there will soon be a lot of electric batteries to deal with, and as Kyriazis says, we need to start planning.
“As we transition to EVs, we need to make sure that we’re building this industry the right way from the start,” she says. That includes taking steps to be transparent about the range and content of EV batteries, as well as creating better policies and protocols regarding how they will be recycled when they reach the end of their usability in vehicles.
Here are five things you need to know about EV batteries.
An electric car battery is a very different piece of technology than the lead acid battery that is used in cars with internal-combustion engines. EVs are powered by lithium-ion batteries that power electromagnets that generate rotational force to move the vehicle. They’re massive — often running the length of the car and weighing up to 600 kilograms. The batteries themselves are filled with valuable minerals like lithium, cobalt and manganese.
A new EV fresh off the assembly line will run for 10 to 15 years. But over time (and with ongoing use) the battery power will start to degrade. “When you hit that accelerator, or when you charge your EV in 20 minutes, that puts a lot of stress on that battery,” says Edward Chiang, the co-founder and CEO of Moment Energy, a company finding sustainable uses for retired EV batteries. “And over time, that battery cannot sustain that high output. So it starts degrading.”
The good news is even once an EV reaches the end of the road, the battery can be reused or recycled. Most still have 70 to 80 percent capacity, says Zarko Meseldzija, the CEO of RecycLiCo Battery Materials.
Entrepreneurs like Chiang are experimenting with using the batteries as stable electric power sources for all sorts of uses — they can be connected to diesel generators, or even electric car charging ports. Moment’s second-life batteries are now in use at a scuba diving resort in Port Hardy, B.C., and by homeowners in Alberta to help them operate off-grid. That sort of use puts far less strain on lithium-ion batteries than braking and acceleration, which means they can be used for another 10 to 20 years until they truly die.
And when that day comes, someone like Meseldzija can come in and extract the precious minerals. “Think of it as an urban mine where you can recover this material and reuse it again instead of mining for new material,” he says.
Some of the metals in EV batteries are only mined in certain parts of the world, leaving manufacturers dependent on just a handful of countries.
“We are dealing with critical metals that we desperately need for energy transition and electrification of our society,” says Ahmad Ghahreman, CEO of Cyclic Materials, a Toronto startup that’s developing a process to take the end-of-life components of EV engines and mine them for the raw materials, which can then be used to manufacture magnets, as well as in other applications. This keeps those rare earth metals out of landfills — where they could contaminate the soil — and within domestic supply chains.
This is why recycling is important. As demand for EVs reaches critical mass, it’s estimated that hundreds of new mines will need to be opened around the globe. Those mines have a huge impact on the environment, and take dollars out of the Canadian economy. But by recycling existing materials, we can reduce those impacts.
So how does a battery end up in the hands of reuse startups like Chiang’s or recycling companies like Ghahreman’s? While anyone getting rid of a vehicle still needs to follow hazardous-waste disposal regulations, it’s really up to whoever takes possession of the vehicle after the owner gives it up. If you were to trade in your zero-emission vehicle, the manufacturer likely takes responsibility for the recycling process.
In the summer, an EV battery recovery program was launched in Quebec to ensure they are being properly collected and recycled. And recycling programs in British Columbia are slated to start in 2026. But there’s no federal requirement about how or where the battery should be recycled, or how the batteries should be labelled.
Kyriazis points out there are a number of other jurisdictions that Canada could use as a model for potential regulations. For instance, the EU is working on a battery regulation that would eventually require makers to meet certain levels of recycled content. And in California, manufacturers will be required to label batteries with their internal chemistry. “This move toward increased transparency will be key because that allows third-party recyclers, not just the original manufacturers, to be able to contribute to recycling efforts,” she says.
Ghahreman believes this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for investors and entrepreneurs. “In 10 to 15 years, a majority of the cars that are being recycled are going to be electric vehicles,” he says. “The market size is going to be substantial.”
It’s also a chance to build a circular, homegrown manufacturing process, where the materials for new electric vehicles are recycled from existing batteries and engines. “We’re all going to need to work together,” Chiang says. “We believe that it’s going to take a village to really solve this climate crisis.”
To learn more about second-life applications of EV batteries, listen to the latest episode of the MaRS podcast Solve for X: Innovations to Change the World.
Image source: iStock