India's ambitious electric vehicle plans could throw up challenges of environmental hazards if used batteries are not handled properly. The country does not have regulations on scrapping of electric vehicle batteries as of now. The automobile industry is moving towards the use of lithium-ion batteries instead of lead-acid batteries to offer quicker charging and higher range. "Lithium is not a product to be dealt with lightly. It requires proper handling," said R C Bhargava, chairman at Maruti Suzuki. Maruti's parent company Suzuki is setting up a Rs 11.51-billion lithium-ion battery unit with Toshiba and Denso in Gujarat. Bhargava said the company's electric vehicle plans for the country entail setting up a complete ecosystem, including appropriate treatment of end-of-life batteries. Suzuki has partnered with Toyota to introduce electric vehicles in India. Ashim Sharma, partner and group head (auto, engineering, and logistics) at Nomura Research Institute India, said that lithium-ion battery recycling is hazardous because of the highly reactive nature of lithium ions. "Proper rules and regulations need to be framed based on our temperature and humidity conditions. Improper handling can be dangerous," he added. The proper scrapping of batteries will not only alleviate possible environmental concerns but will also act as an enabler to locally source the chemical elements of the batteries such as lithium, nickel, manganese, cobalt, and titanium, thereby increasing the cost-effectiveness of the supply chain. Roland Folger, managing director and chief executive officer at luxury carmaker Mercedes Benz, said that everybody thinks that somebody will take care of the used batteries. "Since the electric vehicle programme is driven by environmental consciousness, my biggest amazement comes with the fact that not many people are talking about recycling. You can see guys on the roadside with a chisel and hammer, trying to recover the lead-acid batteries. If the acid from the lead-acid battery leaks into the groundwater, it can be highly poisonous.
One lithium-ion battery has the potential to poison the whole water aquifer of Delhi," he explained.Folger added that using an electric vehicle during floods can be dangerous. "We have had floods in Chennai and Mumbai recently. What will you do with your electric vehicles (in such a situation)? Would you be comfortable sitting with huge batteries when the water level is rising?" he asked. Some in the industry see used electric vehicle batteries holding the possibility of subsequent usage. "We believe that the life of a battery after use in vehicles can be used for static storage applications for at least an additional three to five years, thereby increasing the life-cycle of the battery usage. Internationally, this has been the application expectation and Mahindra has similar plans," said Mahindra Electric CEO Mahesh Babu. Mahindra has been the country's pioneer in electric vehicles. Babu said the company has a recycling plan for all lithium-ion batteries used in cars. "In fact, it is similar to the re-cycle procedure of the batteries used in mobile phones and other lithium-ion applications. We have a proper supplier who does the recycling of these batteries," he added. A Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers white paper on electric vehicles suggested measures to incentivise recycling. It said that the minimum requirement of materials to be recycled should be mandated and manufacturers should be encouraged to develop closed-loop mechanisms for batteries, thereby ensuring minimum scrappage. India aims to convert all new commercial vehicles to electric by 2030, by when forty per cent of new personal vehicles could also be electric. Pure electric vehicle penetration currently remains quite low in India: 0.1 per cent in passenger vehicles, 0.2 per cent in two-wheelers, and practically nil for commercial vehicles. This low penetration has been caused by several reasons, including significant affordability gap and low level of consumer acceptance, low level of electric vehicle manufacturing activities, and non-existent public charging infrastructure, among other factors.