Charging up, again: A second life for electric vehicle batteries


The uYilo Electro Mobility Technology Innovation Programme (uYilo) was initiated by the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) to fast track the development and commercialisation of key technologies that will support the e-mobility industry. The programme is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU).

Having established itself as a centre of technological innovation since launching uYilo, the NMMU is now pioneering new systems and products in the green technology space – and one of its projects is now set to be a first for South Africa.

Opened in May last year, uYilo’s National Battery Testing Laboratory allows for the testing of battery cells and materials, while its Live Testing Environment (LTE) provides a platform for electro-mobility ecosystem simulations.

Originally only capable of testing lead-acid batteries, the laboratory recently expanded its workings to include the evaluation of lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries found in laptops, cellphones or electric vehicles.

Although popular due to their lightness, energy density and low charging losses, the disposal of Li-ion batteries is generally considered as a safety hazard due to the risk of fire or explosion.

“When the battery in your Electric Vehicle (EV) is replaced, it either needs to be recycled, or it can be re-used again in a ‘second life’ application,” uYilo Programme Director, Laurence Geyer, said.

“With Li-ions, especially those in vehicles, no local system is currently in place where they can be recycled or used again. There is, thus, an opportunity for South Africa to develop ways, to handle and process spent battery pack, as the number of EV’s in the country increases over time.”

While most EV’s Li-ion batteries are expected to last about eight years or 160 000 km, depending on a variety factors, Geyer stated that most could still be re-used in a ‘Second Life’ application.

“A typical Second Life would be the supply of back-up energy or as an energy source for homes or small buildings in conjunction with renewable solar arrays. This step could also help to reduce the initial electric vehicle cost as it places a value on batteries which has exhausted its useful life in vehicle applications,” he said.

Referring to their involvement in furthering the development of Li-ion re-usage, Geyer said that while the batteries’ safe disposal is out of their hands, the research into making battery re-use and recycling more viable would be handled by uYilo.

“The safe disposal of batteries is more likely to follow international trends, where either legislation is imposed to limit uncontrolled disposal or an incentive / penalty scheme to encourage the responsible disposal of these products. Through partnerships, uYilo will continue evaluating the re-use / recycling process of the product without the need to export the battery pack at huge cost or risk.”