Explosive growth of new energy vehicles in China will pose a great challenge to battery recycling, a downstream industry that has not kept up with the sharp expansion of plug-in autos.
China's new energy vehicle market recorded another year of rapid growth in 2017 as the government continued its strong push for green transport. New energy vehicles refer to vehicles powered by non-traditional fuel, for example, electric and hybrid vehicles.
A total of 777,000 new energy vehicles were sold in the Chinese market last year, up 53.3 percent year on year, according to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers.
The growth was 0.3 percentage points faster than in 2016, when China sold more new energy vehicles than anywhere else for a second year.
New energy vehicle output jumped 53.8 percent to 794,000 units last year, according to CAAM. The stock of new energy vehicles is the world's largest, with 1.53 million by the end of 2017.
According to Shenzhen Gaogong Industry Research Co Ltd, in 2016, there were about 12,000 tons of car batteries that needed recycling, and the figure is expected to jump to 248,000 tons by 2020.
"The number of batteries that need to be recycled will climb very fast after 2018," said Bai Min, an assistant researcher at the Center For International Economic and Technological Cooperation.
Lithium batteries, commonly used by new energy vehicles, pose less hazard to the environment compared with lead-acid cells. Copper, cobalt and nickel in the batteries also have high recycling value.
"Lithium is in high demand, and for example can be used for rechargeable laptops and mobile phones. There is money to be made from a used battery," Bai said.
While the new energy cars' environmental benefits are clear, they come with certain challenges.
Zhang Zheming, assistant researcher with Shenzhen Institutes of Advanced Technology, warned that the used batteries pose hazards if mishandled.
"If car batteries are not properly handled they may explode. Acidic substances that are needed to process the batteries are also hazardous to humans and may pollute air and soil," Zhang said.
But China's battery recycling industry has not developed in tandem with the auto industry, said Zhang Changling, senior engineer of China Automotive Technology And Research Center.
"Many recycling companies are still using old ways, like taking down the parts manually, which have great safety and environment risks," Zhang Changling said. "Certified recyclers are still lacking."