Sustainability: Giving EV batteries a second life

This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on April 25, 2022 - May 01, 2022.
The EVC team (Che and Lee are third and fourth from left) presenting their repurposed EV batteries at BMW Malaysia’s NEXTGen event in January (Photo by EVC)

The EVC team (Che and Lee are third and fourth from left) presenting their repurposed EV batteries at BMW Malaysia’s NEXTGen event in January (Photo by EVC)

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When BMW introduced its first plug-in hybrid car in Malaysia eight years ago in 2014, Sashi Ambi, head of corporate communications at BMW Malaysia, foresaw that there would soon be a problem with used electric vehicle (EV) batteries. 

It wasn’t that these lithium-ion batteries would be mismanaged. BMW collects the used batteries to be recycled at its plant in Germany, says Sashi. The typical lifespan of the battery is between six and eight years before it is put into the recycling programme.

The problem is that the batteries usually still have enough capacity to be used for less-demanding applications. Instead of being taken apart for recycling, they can be repurposed to lengthen their lifespan. 

“Sometimes, in the process of recycling, it’s not 100% [of the materials that get extracted]. Some by-products are released as well,” says Sashi. 

He spent the next five years looking for a partner to repurpose the used lithium-ion batteries. He eventually succeeded and RE:GENERATE, a second-life initiative by BMW Group Malaysia, was officially launched in January. 

The programme has three components, one of which is in partnership with EV Connection Sdn Bhd (EVC) to repurpose old lithium-ion batteries into portable and off-grid chargers. The timing for this programme is apt, given that the first batch of batteries from the plug-in hybrid vehicles are due for retirement.

“On average, we get about 2,000 batteries in a period of six months. So, these batteries are the ones that we’re putting into these projects. We go to our dealers and see what they have, then collect them to be repurposed,” says Sashi. The batteries contain proprietary designs and intellectual property, so they can only be unlocked by the right people, he adds.

“We had to go [get permission from] high up in the organisation for us to even run this project. But the idea is that you cannot stop responsible innovation. If anything is to be done with the batteries, it will happen in our dealership.”

On a bigger scale, this programme could help address the incoming mountain of EV battery waste as the use of EVs globally shoots up. Automotive manufacturers are building recycling plants and creating energy storage solutions — powered by renewable energy — with used EV batteries. 

Nissan, for instance, set up 4R Energy Corp to develop technologies to refabricate, recycle, resell and reuse EV batteries. Already, it is supporting solar and wind farms in Japan with second-life batteries. Its batteries are also reused in automated guided vehicles in its plants.

The BMW Group in the UK has struck up partnerships to turn its used EV batteries into battery modules that support renewable energy. The company also has a large-scale battery storage system in Germany that uses the old batteries to store energy generated by wind turbines. 

Turning used EV batteries into charging solutions addresses another hurdle to widespread EV adoption: Range anxiety. By creating off-grid chargers powered by solar or relying on portable chargers, vehicle owners do not have to worry about being stranded in places without proper infrastructure.

“Imagine a solar-powered kiosk that stores solar energy in the batteries, which can then charge vehicles. I could put this module in rural states, for instance [where there are no EV chargers],” says Sashi. 

“Right now, I think there’s a need to create this confidence for EVs. I don’t think we have enough charging points [at the moment], so it’s very important for us to provide a solution like that, which could give people peace of mind.”

A prototype of the portable charger was shown in BMW’s NEXTGen Malaysia event in January. Sashi hopes to deploy the prototypes by the end of this year.

How will it work?

EVC, which builds EV charging infrastructure around Malaysia, has actually been researching second-life batteries for a while now. Its founder Lee Yuen How has been working with Dr Gobbi Ramasamy, an associate professor at Multimedia University, to turn lithium-ion batteries from Nissan Motor’s old Nissan Leaf EVs into battery storage for solar power systems. The solution could be a game changer that can support the wider deployment of renewable energy. 

But Lee also wanted to work with BMW, since it is one of the biggest providers of EVs and plug-in hybrid vehicles in Malaysia. Many used EV batteries — including those that are rejected for minor faults — still have 70% to 80% of capacity, he says. To ensure that they can be repurposed, the team has to test for physical damage and the general health of the batteries. Then, batteries with similar capacities are grouped together. 

“Once they are packed together, we have to install a battery management system (BMS). This is important because it’s possible that some cells in the battery are weaker than others. It might result in a bottleneck and cause the battery to heat up and explode. The BMS monitors for this and cuts off [electricity supply] if anything is wrong,” explains Dr Che Hang Seng, a director at EVC. 

In collaboration with BMW, EVC is working on two charging solutions. One is a portable charger made of repurposed batteries that can be placed in rescue vans. Any EV owner who needs assistance can call for a mobile van to bring the portable charger instead of waiting for a tow truck. The prototype for this charger is already completed. “It can give EVs around a 50km range,” says Lee.

The second project is more complex. EVC hopes to put the repurposed batteries into containers and place them in remote places with little or no access to the electricity grid. The batteries will be charged by a solar panel and provide fast-charging services to EVs. 

“We need to ensure that the batteries are put in a safe environment, so we need a 10ft by 21ft container to put the batteries and a firefighting system for emergencies. I think we can fully charge around two to three cars every day before it has to be recharged,” says Lee, who hopes to finish the prototype by the third quarter of this year.

By repurposing batteries, Lee estimates that they can extend the battery life for another three to five years beyond the typical eight-year lifespan of EV batteries. 

What are the systemic changes needed?

Regulations are being put in place in various countries to manage used EV batteries. The European Union, for instance, is exploring a regulatory framework to ensure used batteries are repurposed for energy storage. It also hopes to set mandatory levels of recycled content in batteries. 

In Malaysia, vehicle batteries are considered scheduled waste and can only be disposed, treated or recovered through licensed facilities. 

Many observers predict that the recycling of EV batteries could pick up in the near term as the cost of raw materials shoots up. Mining metals from used batteries may make more economic sense.

But Lee is still hoping to push for more attention on repurposing batteries before recycling. “We want to show that the batteries still have value and it makes sense for automotive companies to do this before recycling.” 

Among other things, the circular economy model encourages repurposing materials before recycling them, as more of their value is retained for longer. The circular economy essentially calls for all materials to be kept in use, whether it is through reuse, repurposing or refurbishment. 

The circular economy also promotes better design of the batteries, for instance, so that they can be easily taken apart for repurposing at their end of life. When asked, Sashi says how the batteries are put together is proprietary information, so they have to work closely with partners to implement this project. 

Does he think regulations that require manufacturers to repurpose used batteries before recycling are required? “Yes, at some point, but not immediately. I think it should start with projects that can support [this ambition] first. Because usually what happens is that there is a regulation but then the other parts of it do not move.”

There must be projects that showcase the potential of repurposing used batteries and stir demand for this alternative. “This is what the NEXTGen event was meant to do. A lot of people think there are no organisations working on these projects but there are, and governments need to understand that companies are willing to work on them,” he says. 

Going forward, there are other innovative opportunities to use the repurposed lithium-ion batteries. They could, for instance, be turned into energy storage solutions for homes that have solar panels. With more innovation, vehicle owners could also keep the repurposed batteries at home or in their car. “It could be a battery bank for vehicle owners,” says Lee. 

RE:GENERATE’s other partners are Precious Plastic Malaysia, which upcycles plastic waste into furniture, and Pentas Flora, which recycles lubricants used in BMW’s authorised dealership service centres.