Tesla confirmed that it has significantly increased its battery recycling capacity over the last year, but it currently only sees a few battery packs from consumer vehicles coming back. This effort is key to making battery-electric vehicles sustainable long term.
When it comes to emissions throughout the entire life cycle, electric vehicles have two main advantages over gas-powered vehicles.
Electric vehicle owners have more choices of energy sources to charge their vehicles than just gasoline to operate their vehicles. They can charge their vehicles using renewable energy, which will greatly reduce emissions generated by the use of their vehicles.
On the manufacturing front, EV detractors often claim that the energy and resources that it takes to build batteries counterbalance all the tailpipe advantages. However, those detractors often leave out battery recycling, which makes all the difference for the full-emission cycles for electric vehicles since you can recover most of the materials in a battery pack.
Originally, Tesla has been working with third-party recyclers, but we reported on the company working on its own “unique battery recycling system“ back in 2019.
Last year, Tesla reported that it achieved 92% battery cell material recovery in its new recycling process, and it recycled 1,300 tons of nickel, 400 tons of copper, and 80 tons of cobalt in 2020.
In Tesla’s 2021 Impact Report, it has released an update on its battery recycling effort. In 2021, Tesla increased its battery material recycling to 1,500 tons of nickel, 300 tons of copper, and 200 tons of cobalt.
Interestingly, copper recovery went down, but cobalt recovery went up significantly. At the current price of $80,000 per ton for cobalt, Tesla has recovered the equivalent of $16 million worth of cobalt last year.
With the recent surge in nickel prices, the nickel recovered by Tesla last year is worth more than $45 million now.
Tesla also confirmed that it significantly increased its recycling capacity with a production rate of over 50 tons of recycled material per week at the end of 2021. While the automaker has increased the capacity, it says that it is still receiving a only small number of battery packs to recycle from consumers’ vehicles. Interestingly, Tesla noted that most packs that it has recycled come from vehicles that have been used as taxis or for taxi-like services:
The small number of post-consumer batteries that we receive are primarily generated from our fleet of vehicles on the road, predominantly from taxi-like vehicles. Since we have only been producing Model S (our oldest model) for approximately ten years, and our energy storage products for even less time, it will likely be some time before we start receiving back vehicle batteries in larger volumes.
Tesla says that most battery packs it currently recycles come from its R&D and quality control departments:
Tesla batteries, including the battery packs in our vehicles and our energy storage products, are made to last many years, and therefore, we have received a limited number of them back from the field. Most batteries that Tesla recycles today are pre-consumer, coming to us through R&D and quality control. None of our scrapped lithium-ion batteries go to landfills and 100% are recycled. Furthermore, Tesla has an established internal ecosystem to re-manufacture batteries coming from the field to our Service Centers. We actively implement circular economy principles and consider all other options before opting for battery recycling.
The automaker did note that “battery recycling will play a critical role” in supplying battery materials; it recognized that the industry is going to have to rely on expanding mined material production in order to support the growth of electric vehicles.
In the impact report, Tesla also included an update on its effort to secure more battery materials from mining companies.
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