Episode 173 - Supporting a Circular Economy for EV Batteries

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When it comes to sustainability, the term “circular economy” refers to a process in which products are used again and again, thus reducing finite raw material consumption and curbing CO2 emissions. In transportation, the need to achieve circularity for EV batteries is particularly acute.

According to recent studies, the projected demand for lithium will increase sixfold by 2030. This surge requires new engineering practices that reuse and recycle EV battery materials all the way upstream—and that’s where SAE comes in.

In the latest episode of Sustainable Mobility Briefs, Frank Menchaca, President, Sustainable Mobility Solutions at SAE International, discusses the importance of a circular economy for EV batteries and how SAE is designing engineering practices that will support the transition from gasoline power to electricity.

Meet Our Guest

President, Sustainable Mobility Solutions, SAE International

Frank Menchaca is President, Sustainable Mobility Solutions at SAE International, the oldest and largest technical organization for engineering in ground and air transportation. Frank incubated and developed SAE's work in sustainability and has also led the organization's product development, marketing, information publishing, professional learning, events and international business. Frank has a deep background in information products and served as Executive Vice President at Cengage Learning. Frank holds degrees from New York University and Yale University and is a candidate in the Chief Sustainability Officer certification program at MIT. A musician and artist, Frank has released ten records of original music under his own name and in the duo Hourloupe; his visual art practice includes painting and digital media.


Frank Menchaca:

Hello, I'm Frank Menchaca, and this is the Sustainable Mobility Brief. The world of transportation is undergoing one of the most profound changes since its beginning from fossil fuels to sustainable energy. This change affects everything that goes into getting people and things from one place to another.

The Sustainable Mobility Brief looks at what's important, what's new, and what that means to you.

We all know what recycling is, right? In school, we're taught the importance of finding ways to reuse things instead of throwing them away. As adults, we're all familiar with bin sorting, aluminum, glass, and paper. Those three elbow shaped arrows following each other in a pyramid form a universally recognizable symbol.

For all this. Our behaviors are remarkably linear. Nearly everything we use from the fuel to drive our cars to our food and clothing is sourced from nature, manufactured, shipped, sold, used, and discarded. The vast majority of those discards end up in landfills where they decay producing noxious gases such as methane or leak hazardous ingredients into groundwater.

The United States, for example, recycles less than a quarter of its municipal waste, about half that of the global leader South Korea. When it comes to plastics, the situation is even worse worldwide. The recycling rate for all those water bottles and packaging materials, a mere 9%, that's a large problem for a substance that can last for decades in landfills or accumulate in oceans.

A key aspect of getting to net zero emissions and transportation, and nearly everything else is recycling. The more we can reuse a thing rather than throw it away, means that that's one less item that needs to be sourced, shipped, and sold. Saving the greenhouse gas emissions that come with those processes.

In sustainability lingo, that's what's called closing the loop or creating a circular economy. In transportation, the need to achieve circularity for batteries is particularly acute. As we transition from gasoline power to electricity to run our cars, trucks, buses, and even albeit over short distances, airplanes, we are going to need more batteries.

This means that more rare earth materials such as lithium, nickel, cobalt, and manganese will need to be mine. Put aside for a moment, the environmental impact of extracting those materials in terms of water, equipment and human labor, there is simply a limit to them. In February 2023, a group representing US, government and private industry known as LightBridge, projected the demand for lithium will increase sixfold by 2030.

This increase is happening against a backdrop of rapidly expanding human population. At the start of the 20th century, for example, there were 1.6 billion people. At the end, there were 6.1 billion people. That number just crossed 8 billion and forecasters project 10 billion by 2050. That's more people who will need to make use of a set of resources that is except for sunlight finite.

This includes materials for batteries. This requires that we design and implement new engineering practices that consider reuse and recycling of battery materials all the way upstream. When new vehicles are so to speak, still only a sparkle in their designer's eyes, some transformations are already in motion.

In the European Union digital product, passports are being required for batteries and many other things. These identifiers will indicate which materials reside in the batteries and where they were sourced. They will include information about the battery's life, such as whether it's been in any accidents.

SAE is involved in this effort and is designing practices for engineers that will support safety, reuse, and recycling, and what's turning out to be the material that is the gold rush of our time at SAE. We think about this every day in our mission to advance mobility, knowledge, and solutions for the benefit of humanity. Follow the link in the show notes to visit our website for more information. 

I'm Frank Menchaca for Sustainable Mobility Briefs. Thanks for listening.


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