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Can auto batteries keep up to their green promise?

Can auto batteries keep up to their green promise?

Whether they are meant for BEVs or ICE cars, auto batteries have been especially thrown into focus for being eco-friendly or extremely dangerous for the environment. Will they keep up to the strict standards that are now in force?

Automotive batteries have been the talk of the town with the rise of electric vehicles (EVs). The constant proponent of Li-ion batteries are OEMs focused on meeting the government’s goal of EVs parrying the roads by 2030. Li-ion batteries are touted as environmentally-friendly due to the complete independence from fossil fuels that it enables. The prospect of zero emissions is very tempting to policy makers to ensure a pollution-free environment amidst growing pressure from all corners.

In all of this, the conventional battery has also been roped in due to such concerns. Lead acid batteries or start-light-ignition batteries, are often used to electronically power systems such as the infotainment system, start ignition, lighting, brakes, etc. However, as the name suggests, lead acid batteries contain lead-which is a very poisonous element- and sulphuric acid as its electrolyte.

The lead components make up the cathode (lead dioxide) and anode (lead sponge) of a battery that runs on the principle of electrolysis. Sulphuric acid present in the battery is in its diluted form but is still a corrosive substance which can cause damage to skin, eyes or any other organs that it comes into contact with. Lead poisoning in humans and animals takes place if lead enters the bloodstream, not to mention several other complications that would arise due to coming into contact with the metal. For this reason, lead acid batteries need to be disposed off in an environmental-friendly manner. The process of disposal also needs to follow certain protocols that are usually outlined by government authorities.

Disposal and recycling issues

According to the Batteries (Management and Handling) Rules, 2001, manufacturers, importers, assemblers and re-conditioners (person or company involved in repairing batteries for selling it in the market) are all required to take responsibility for making sure that the batteries are recycled and are required to make a provision for it as well. The rules specify that they are required to set up collection centres for used batteries at various places and that the used batteries are to be sent to the registered recyclers only. An awareness should also be created about the toxicity of the chemicals in the batteries and how end-users and consumers can approach the designated dealers and collection centres, practicing safe recycling. The responsibilities of bulk consumers is outlined as well wherein they are expected to make the effort to locate government licensed recyclers and smelting units.

When it comes to safe disposal and recycling, bigger, well established companies like Exide and Amara Raja are quite pro-active. Such companies undertake smelting, used battery collection at regular intervals, and recycling. The smelting units in the recycling plants need to be authorised and licensed by the government authorities. Exide also buys back old batteries to help protect the environment and reduce the share of the unorganised market, which lags behind when it comes to safe disposal.

One of the major problems is that there isn’t an effective and organised collection system for lead acid batteries. Often, unlicensed centres dispose off lead acid batteries in a careless manner, leaving the dangerous acid exposed to the environment and human health. Another issue with unlicensed disposal or smelting units is that workers in those factories don’t follow the protocol that comes with handling dangerous chemicals. Such carelessness can make the unit prone to accidents which, considering the hazardous waste involved in them, could result in a catastrophe. On the other side, end users don’t always take the care that they are supposed to, when it comes to e-waste or toxic waste. The know-how regarding the disposal of lead acid batteries is more or less absent.

The green component of lead acid batteries

In light of the legality issues that lead acid battery collectors face, Rajat Agarwal, MD of Gravita India, stresses on the importance of choosing a government certified smelting unit. Gravita India is a subsidiary of Gravita Group, a leader in ecofriendly recycling of lead, aluminium and plastics, which operates 12 plants in over seven countries and provides turnkey solutions for recycling globally. The company offers its products to the auto sector, energy and power sector, radiation protection industries and plastic manufacturing industries.

“Lead acid battery recycling has to be advertised for environment friendly recycling process. In India more than 40 per cent batteries are recycled through an informal way. It is affecting environment and health of the human beings. This compliant in recycling process has to be advocated at different levels. The Batteries Management and Handling Rules (BMHR) are supposed to be implemented. Gravita as an organisation follows all health, safety and environment guidelines. Along with being an ISO 9000 ISO 14000 and OHSAS 18000 accredited organisation, we have also initiated International Lead Association accreditation,” commented Agarwal.

The company sources lead acid battery scraps for conversion to finish metal and alloys. The lead acid battery scrap is sourced from various corners of the world and is recycled at Gravita’s manufacturing location. “The recycling process is a close loop process wherein all components of battery scrap are converted as useful resource for the industry,” describes Agarwal.

“Lead acid batteries are unique as they are completely recyclable. As a unique product which has the highest rate of recycling, the content of lead inside the battery and can be recycled for an unlimited number of times without losing the properties,” he added.

Lead acid batteries go through a comprehensive, step-by-step process where they are broken down so that the lead can be extracted from them. After collection the battery is first broken apart or crushed into nickel-sized pieces. The broken pieces include the plastic components, which are mainly polypropylene, and heavy metals such as lead, which are then separated from each other. The liquid remains are sieved to separate the polypropylene (plastic components) after which the acid is taken to neutralisation zone to be reused. The polypropylene plastic in lead-acid batteries has a high heat tolerance, thus it can be reused by the battery manufacturer.

The remnants of the broken down battery at this stage consist of lead ore and lead paste are taken through metallurgical processes to extract valuable metals and minerals. The lead in the batteries can be sold to companies that makes new batteries.

Seeing this process, it is evident that most components of the battery are reused or recycled. “According to the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) up to 80 per cent of the plastic and lead in any new battery is recycled by the battery manufacturer. Virtually, all of the lead-acid battery is recycled, apart from the impurities and alloying metals that are removed as dross. The plastic casing (polypropylene) is broken into pieces, melted, and re-cast as pellets that are sold again to battery manufacturers. The lead is melted and turned into ingots that are resold to the manufacturers and also for other applications. The electrolyte may be reclaimed or neutralised and released into municipal sewers. ” explains Atul Kumar, Team Lead— Automobile and Transport Division, Markets and Markets.

Lead acid batteries are clearly good for the environment owing to their reusability. However, lead acid batteries are notorious for becoming unstable after long use. This begs the question if lead acid batteries can be recycled over and over again.

“A car battery averages a four year life span, with variation due to things like temperature, driving habits, condition of electrical system, number of charge or discharge deep cycles, electrolyte fluid and water. Normally, the chemicals, metals and plastics used to form a battery are recycled; however, the exact number of recycling depends on the usage and type of application of that battery,” opines Kumar.

The sensitive nature of lead acid batteries often leads to scares amongst consumers. Instances of batteries leaking dangerous acid or blowing up are increasingly becoming rare but are still a matter of concern. Companies are now taking precautions by researching into good quality battery exteriors and sealants.

Performance-wise batteries can be improved upon by adding carbon to the negative active material (NAM) during paste preparation in a variety of forms, including carbon black, activated carbon, and more recently developed varieties such as graphite and carbon nanotubes. “When incorporated at 0.1 per cent to six per cent with respect to lead oxide, carbon increases the charge acceptance of a battery by more than 200 per cent but at the cost of paste rheology and paste density,” explains Kumar.

The future of automotive batteries

Lead acid batteries have been used for decades by the automotive industry, ever since the introduction of electrified components in the vehicle. While lead acid batteries may still have an application in the future of mobility, most of the market share will continue to be dominated by lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries given the positive attitude towards them.

However, recently, lithium-ion batteries have been gaining momentum as they weigh only one-third of the weight of lead acid batteries. These batteries are also 100 percent efficient in both charging and discharging and can be charged more than 5000 times, unlike lead acid batteries, which tend to lose around 15 amps while charging. Li-ion batteries are also much cleaner technology and are safer for the environment.

In the Indian market, Li-ion is projected to take a hold of a majority market share. Factors such as increasing demand for EVs and use of sustainable and clean fuels is shifting the automotive vertical. The huge dependence on oil – almost 70 per cent is being used in transport vehicles- has led to the rising concern among both environmentalists and economists. Increasing awareness about these issues has led to stringent CO2 emission norms have increased the demand for electric vehicle. Governments are investing heavily in providing incentives and subsidies to encourage the growth of EV sales. Governments like China are providing incentives up to USD 8,633 for BEVs. These kinds of steps from various governments are also encouraging automakers to move towards the new trend of electric vehicle. Multiple governments are providing various kinds of incentives such as low or zero registration fee, exemption in import tax, purchase tax, road tax etc. There is a huge increase in the adoption of renewable energy generation and storage across the world due to depleting fossil fuels and their increasing costs. The global electric car stock has been growing since 2010 and has surpassed the two million numbers in 2016. The global electric vehicle sales reach to 7,53,000 units in 2016 from 5,47,000 units in 2015 registering a Y-o-Y growth of 38 per cent, notes Markets and Markets.

Impact of government policies

Initiatives like the Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Electric and Hybrid Vehicles (FAME) and the growing acceptance of the concept of all-electric vehicles is proving to be beneficial for companies like Future Hi-Tech Batteries Ltd (FHTBL). As Future Hi-Tech Batteries Ltd Business Head, G S Marjara can testify, government involvement is very important for the growth Li-ion production in India.

The company was established in year 1998 to manufacturer Li-ion cells in India and to this date is the only such unit in the country. In the absence of Govt. policies and initiative towards renewable green energy at that time and non-acceptance of this technology by industry, the unit could not survive for long time and had to shut down.

However, all was not lost for FHTBL as eventually the industry and the government picked up on what they were selling. Four years back the company noticed that the government is serious about this sector and has started announcing initiatives. The current management then decided to revamp the production of the unit and found they were better off venturing into R&D.

“We joined hands with two universities ie Punjab University, PEC University, BHU, IIT Kharagpur and Patna for on going research projects for the development of lithium batteries and solar storage system. About two years back we bought technology to make energy storage battery packs and started commercial production at a small note while catering to stationary and portable solar energy storage applications such as solar street light, hand held search light, solar lantern and home lighting system etc,” elaborates Marjara about the rebirth of FHTBL’s unit.

Now the company is benefiting with the unconscious support that research institutions, the government and the industry has provided. At the beginning of this year, the company has launched lithium batteries for e-bicycle and e-scooter. Further in April, it launched lithium battery variant for e-rickshaw and during the Renewable Energy India (REI) Expo held in September at Noida, it launched lithium battery pack up to 20 kW single unit which are stretchable and scalable for mega energy storage projects. All the products are indigenous-designed and developed, but of course, the materials are imported.

Most of the auto OEMs are introducing electric or hybrid vehicle to cater to the growing market which is signaling to the increased penetration of electric vehicle in the market. In 2011 there were only handful of electrical vehicles made, but by 2015-16, manufacturing of electric vehicles is widespread, as most of the OEMs have already launched, or are planning to launch the EV version of their most successful model. OEMs such as GM, Nissan, Volkswagen and Toyota have already either launched or showcased their EV product to cater to the growing demand.

“The energy density of lithium ion batteries is higher than that of nickel-metal hydride and lead–acid batteries. This means that a lithium ion battery of the same sized cell can store more electricity than its counterparts, with a comparatively longer life cycle and with no effects on memory. However, initially, the power stored in a lithium ion battery was insufficient for larger applications. The first cobalt-based lithium ion battery was launched in 1991, which was able to deliver a capacity of 1,100 mAh. The LFP battery introduced in 1996 could deliver a capacity of 1,900 mAh by 2001. Currently, the capacity that a lithium ion battery delivers has increased to more than 4,000 mAh. Continuous R&D at Tesla Motors Inc, has developed EVs which have enough power compared to its other cars,” observes Kumar.

According to the report US Energy Storage Monitor, Li-ion batteries are also the most preferred storage technology. These are used for storing the energy of renewable sources such as solar and wind energy owing to competencies in the factors of weight, space, and low-temperature capacity. These factors make li-ion batteries preferable to lead-acid batteries. There is even an chance that lead-acid batteries will be completely redundant as once vehicles start operating on Li-ion battery pack in place of fossil fuel the same battery would offer energy for rest of electrical parts. Hence there would be no needs for another battery or lead acid battery.

Restraints for adoption of Li-ion batteries

Despite this growing surge towards EVs, in India the production and R&D surrounding it is very limited as of now. The production of Li-ion batteries is also lagging behind leaving many dubious about the future. Marjara believes that Li-ion batteries need to be produced locally for many reasons. “This is what is missing in this ambitious plan of implanting lithium based energy storage in India,” he observes. “Until we start producing lithium cells or batteries indigenously we may be doing this entire exercise only for China or other countries hence the savings would be not only the cost but national dependance.”

Atul Kumar from Markets and Markets is of the opinion that the ease of availability of the required materials such as copper, aluminium, cobalt, nickel and magnesium and the low-cost labor makes it possible to save on cost of production for batteries in India.

This observation however brings to light several issues with the current system of Li-ion battery dependence. For starters, India has to import not only the raw materials but also the technology required to make the batteries. Marjara fears that if there isn’t proper dedication towards the sourcing and R&D part, all this time and energy spent in making zero-emission policies would be pointless.

“The resources currently available are not sufficient even for domestic demand. The technology and chemistry are based on raw materials which are not available in India and has to be imported so are the machines required for production and testing, until we are able to develop plant machinery infrastructure and develop the battery chemistry based on raw materials available on Indian soil we may not be able to meet even domestic demand,” he says.

While everyone’s attitude seems to be positive towards the adoption of Li-ion batteries, there are still a few environmental concerns such as the overheating of Li-ion batteries. The major reason for the huge adoption of lithium ion batteries is their ability to store a relatively large amount of energy in a small space. However, a major flaw of these batteries is that they heat up considerably and may catch fire in the case of any malfunctioning. Lithium is a highly unstable substance. Therefore, the liquid can overheat. Factors responsible for overheating can be due to physical damage to the separator. The separator is placed between the cathode and anode. When it is disrupted, it can lead to the formation of a short circuit. Alternatively, when there is a liquid leakage, it can react with the surrounding components causing the battery to heat up. Overheating can also be caused due to software issues in devices where the automated instruction by software to turn off the charging port is missed while a battery is charging, leading to an overcharging and probable overheating and swelling of the battery. This has led to restrictions on the transportation of lithium ion batteries through air transport. The overheating issue has also resulted into a restriction on the sale of hoverboards to locations that can be reached by road transport.

Batteries which stores energy and helps a vehicle to cover distance, comes with a limited life span of five to seven years, which is a playing crucial role in the EV industry. After certain time period there are high amount of chances of reduction in range of vehicle per charge. Usage of battery results into degradation of chemical inside battery, which reduces the power holding capacity of the battery. Cost of changing the battery could be costly, owing to high capacity of the battery. Electric vehicle batteries make up 70 to 80 per cent of total electric vehicle cost.

In recent past, range of electric vehicle per charge has been increased tremendously but it’s not enough to cater to the whole world. Electric vehicle batteries have limited storage and take more time to recharge once emptied. Limited battery power limits the range of electric vehicle to certain distance. Consumer needs to plan the travel in electric vehicle as per charging station availability. Long distance travel looks difficult in electrical vehicle due to its limited power supply. The hybrid and plug in hybrid vehicles can take help of gasoline fuel to travel long distances, but battery powered vehicles need more research on its range.

Another concern is that like lead acid batteries, can Li-ion batteries be recycled? “Good news is that there are certain recycling options now available but in India we have yet to develop on our own or accept those technologies. FHTBL is already working with certain project in collaboration with certain universities and IIT’s, we are hopeful to bring result very soon on disposal and recycling both,” says Marjara.

Li-ion and lithium iron phosphate (LiFePO4)often contain high-grade copper magnesium, and aluminium in addition to—depending on the active material—transition metals,cobalt and nickel. According to Section 27-1805 of the US Battery Act, nobody in the country is allowed to dispose of a rechargeable battery in an open space. In India also, the recycler needs to apply for registration to the Ministry of Environment and Forests or an agency designated, explains Atul Kumar.

Going ahead with lithium-ion

To enhance the Lithium battery, many companies across the globe are working on various other battery compositions, such as advanced Li-ion, Zn-air composition, Li-S composition, and Li-air composition to increase the power of the battery along with the durability. However, so far Li-ion is still considered to be the best to use in an electric car. “On technology part the latest breakthrough is lithium titanium oxide popularly known as LTO which offers five times the battery life and safety features but is about three times costlier than existing chemistries. In India, we are at a very initial stage of adopting lithium and migrating here from relative cheaper solutions hence adopting LTO at this stage may not be viable for us,” says Marjara about the company’s further plans for Li-ion battery development.

When incorporated at 0.1 per cent to six per cent with respect to lead oxide, carbon increases the charge acceptance of a battery by more than 200 per cent but at the cost of paste rheology and paste density”

– Atul Kumar, Team Lead- Automobile and Transport Division, Markets and Markets

Proper disposal of batteries

According to research company Markets and Markets, some steps that can be taken to minimise the damage caused to the environment by improper battery disposal include the following:

  • Making collection of batteries from the source easier and cost effective
  • Providing appropriate remuneration to consumers for selling the used batteries
  • Formulation and implementation of more stringent laws regarding battery disposal
  • Buying batteries containing less mercury, lead, and cadmium
  • Providing complete information to customers at the time of purchase about the battery suitability, safety, and ways of disposal.
  • More R&D in alternative energy storage devices like fuel cells, which are also less hazardous to the environment.
  • Looking at renewable sources of energy like solar, wind, water.

In India more than 40 per cent batteries are recycled through an informal way. It is affecting environment and health of the human beings. This compliant in recycling process has to be advocated at different levels. The Batteries Management and Handling Rules (BMHR) are supposed to be implemented.”

– Rajat Agarwal, MD, Gravita India

Until we start producing lithium cells or batteries indigenously we may be doing this entire exercise only for China or other countries hence the savings would be not only the cost but national dependance.”

– GS Marjara, Business Head, Future Hi-Tech Batteries Limited

To enhance the Lithium battery, many companies across the globe are working on various other battery compositions, such as advanced Li-ion, Zn-air composition, Li-S composition, and Li-air composition.

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