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Can car batteries keep their green promise?



Whether they are meant for battery electric vehicles or internal combustion engines (petrol or diesel) cars, auto batteries have been especially thrown into focus for being eco-friendly. 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. 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. 
 
As a result, 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. 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.
 
Green factors 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. 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.
 
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 among 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.
 
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. 
 
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. 
 
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. 
 
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.
 
Minimising impact of battery environment
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 are:
 
  • 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.

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