Life After Usefulness

    When a lithium-ion battery has exceeded its usefulness to power your EV, what happens next?

    Source: Argonne National Laboratory 

    The question of what to do with lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) once they have exceeded their usefulness within an electric vehicle (EV) is an important consideration currently facing proponents of EVs. In an FAQ document recently published by Argonne National Laboratory, this issue is addressed in detail. In this article, we will highlight some of the main points from the Argonne publication in addition to offering further resources on the matter.

    The question of EV sustainability when battery manufacturing comes into play is vital to a sustainable electric future, and determining the fate of used LIBs is an important part of the answer. Recycling is a popular option as it allows manufacturers to recover some of the metals used in the manufacture of LIBs, and many companies are working on LIB recycling programs. The Department of Energy's Vehicle Technology Office (VTO) released a research plan to Reduce, Recycle, and Recover Critical Materials in Lithium-Ion Batteries in June 2019. But recycling is not the only answer.

    Generally, an LIB is considered to have exceeded its useful life and is removed from an EV once the storage capacity has depleted enough that the battery is no longer viable for powering the vehicle. However, many of these used LIBs still have “significant storage capacity remaining when they no longer meet the power and energy demands of a typical vehicle application” (Argonne). These second-life battery applications allow used LIBs to provide stationary storage or power for other types of equipment that don’t require the same level of power or storage as an EV.

    Recycled? Refurbished? Second-Life?

    There is potential for confusion surrounding the various post-vehicle fates of a used LIB. Used LIBs can be recycled, meaning the battery is broken down and stripped of its remaining useful resources - generally metals such as cobalt and nickel. These resources are then used in the manufacture of new LIBs. Used LIBs can also be refurbished, which means the battery is evaluated and fixed and deemed eligible to be used for the original purpose, namely, powering an EV. Second-life, however, refers to “a new, nonautomotive use of an automotive LIB after its initial use in a vehicle” (Argonne). According to Argonne National Laboratory’s Battery Second Life FAQ, “While the LIB may no longer meet the power and energy demands of a vehicle, it may still be capable of significant energy storage and have up to 10 years of life remaining in different applications.”


    There are various types of second-life applications for LIBs depending on the type of LIB and the requirements of the application.

    Behind-the-Meter (BTM) Storage

    When LIBs are used for behind-the-meter (BTM) storage, they are being used in residential, commercial, or industrial applications, where the electricity goes through the meter before being used or stored.

    BTM storage is beneficial because it can allow consumers to store electricity purchased during low-cost periods for use during peak demand periods, helping to lower overall electricity costs. BTM storage is also commonly used in conjunction with solar power, as the battery-stored electricity helps to even out the variable output from the solar setup.

    Learn more about BTM storage services from this Solar Power World article.

    Front-of-the-Meter (FTM) Storage

    Front-of-the-meter (FTM) storage services are large-scale applications used most often by utilities for purposes such as load relief, “frequency regulation, voltage support, and excess renewable energy storage” (Argonne). It is so-called because the LIBs are situated before the electricity runs through a meter to a user. According to a report by the International Renewable Energy Agency, LIBs “accounted for nearly 90% of large-scale battery storage additions” in 2017.

    FTM storage is an important second-life application for LIBs as it can help improve the efficiency of utilities. LIBs can potentially be used to store excess energy produced during times of low demand to be discharged during times of high demand. Additionally, FTM storage systems can store energy generated from variable renewable energy sources - energy sources that fluctuate in output and cannot be controlled (such as wind or solar energy) - to smooth the output of those sources and better meet demand.

    Learn more about grid-scale battery storage from NREL and USAID’s Grid Integration Toolkit or from IRENA’s Utility-Scale Batteries Innovation Landscape Brief.

    Telecommunications and Data Center Backup

    LIBs can also be used to provide backup power for telecommunications and data centers. “Power for telecommunications towers is currently the largest second-life application in the world. Data centers, which need stable power, represent a potential market” (Argonne).

    Electric Vehicle Charging

    Used LIBs can also help power electric vehicle charging at charging stations. Much like BTM storage, LIBs can be used to help charging stations store energy for use during peak demand to lower overall electricity costs and reduce strain on the grid from fast-charging stations. According to Argonne,  “50–300-kWh battery systems that facilitate direct current (DC) fast charging to decrease peak demands from the grid can result in lower charging costs for the charging station operator and the vehicle user. Demand charges, which are related to the rate of electricity delivery (kW), as opposed to the total amount delivered (kWh), are a driver of electricity cost for DC fast-charger applications” (Argonne).

    Learn how EVgo is using second-life EV batteries to power fast-charging stations in California.

    Low-Power Electric Vehicles

    LIBs that are unable to meet the demands of an electric passenger vehicle can still find use powering other electric vehicle options such as golf carts, forklifts, and other industrial and commercial vehicles. These vehicles have lower power and distance requirements than passenger electric vehicles, so they are a potentially good second-life fit for LIBs with reduced storage capacity.

    Learn how Audi is using second-life LIBs from its electric vehicles to power forklifts in its factories.


    There are many challenges to overcome in considering second-life applications of LIBs. LIBs are considered hazardous and as such have challenging rules and regulations surrounding their shipment and handling. “Because LIBs are classified as a Class 9 hazardous material, transportation of LIBs can be challenging. These batteries must be handled in a specific way by individuals with the proper certifications, increasing the cost of shipping” (Argonne). LIBs are also complex and require various parts and pieces - “cells, modules, battery management systems (BMS), thermal management systems, packaging” (Argonne) - outside of the battery itself to keep things running smoothly. These parts are not always compatible with intended second-life applications, meaning the battery may need new parts, such as a new battery management system, to fit it for its new second-life usage. Additionally, not all vehicle LIBs are exactly the same, and mixing battery modules from various sources can add variability to battery performance.

    Creating a market for used LIBs can also cause issues if the supply of batteries available for second-life applications does not meet the demand. Vehicle LIBs are generally already designed to last a decade, and the technology continues to progress. If continued research leads to extended battery life, better and more efficient recycling practices, or more easily refurbished and reused battery modules for further vehicle applications, “this would reduce the flow of LIB modules for second-life applications. So, while beneficial to extending LIB life, it would represent a challenge to the second-life market” (Argonne).

    Despite these challenges, many second-life LIBs are already in use and development around the world, including Nissan's plan to install streetlights powered by used Nissan LEAF LIBs in Namie, Japan (see right photo). The number of projects is expected to grow as more and more purchased EVs eventually hit the decade mark and beyond.

    For more information about second-life lithium-ion battery applications, see Argonne National Laboratory’s “Battery Second Life Frequently Asked Questions” or reach out to Jarod C. Kelly, Vehicle Systems Analyst Engineer | Phone: 630-252-6579 | assessments

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