As it becomes clear there is unlikely to be enough lithium to fuel the battery demands of the future, automakers and energy firms are exploring ways to recycle and reuse lithium-ion batteries. However, this industry is highly underdeveloped and currently lacks the regulatory framework to guarantee a cohesive set of standards for battery recycling, with more funding needed to support its expansion.
At the consumer level, in the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) asks people using lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries not to dispose of them with normal waste. The reason given is to preserve the critical minerals found in the batteries, such as cobalt, graphite and lithium. They also warn of them becoming a fire hazard if broken. The EPA asks consumers to take old Li-ion batteries to a certified battery electronics recycler rather than put them in their municipal recycling bins, advice that is rarely followed. Many households discard Li-ion batteries improperly or keep them for years, sitting in storage in unused electronics. This is unlikely to happen with larger batteries, such as those in electronic vehicles (EVs), but it certainly happens with phones, laptops, and other electronic devices.
There are several challenges associated with Li-ion battery recycling. Firstly, these batteries are everywhere now, meaning there’s a need for greater public awareness about battery recycling – which is not the same in every city, state, or country. Secondly, battery recycling facilities are not always available. A recent USGS report suggested there were around two dozen companies in North America and Europe recycling lithium batteries, but there is little coordination for battery recycling at the national or regional level. And thirdly, an effective and coordinated approach to Li-ion battery recycling is expensive to set up and requires new infrastructure and expertise to ensure the critical minerals are preserved and reused.
However, there is also a high cost of throwing these batteries away, as we lose minerals that are vitally needed to support a green transition. With limited mining activities worldwide and under-established supply chains for these minerals, without recycling, we are unlikely to have enough of the minerals needed to power all the batteries required in the coming decades.
And there is great hope for the future of battery recycling, with some studies suggesting that recycled Li-ion batteries may even perform better than new ones. Due to a lack of funding for battery recycling, innovations have only recently started to be seen. Previously, manufacturers worried that recycled batteries may be low in quality and have a shorter life span than new batteries. However, recent advances suggest that this concern is unfounded. A 2022 report in Joule demonstrated that by refurbishing the cathode –– the crystal in the Li-ion battery that is its most expensive component and key to supplying the proper voltage – battery recycling can be highly effective.
And the innovations don’t stop there. Last month, scientists at Lawrence Berkeley announced they had found a new solution for safer and cheaper recycling, using a new material that allows Li-ion cells to be recycled using just water. Battery cells require glue-like binders to hold the positively charged cathode and negatively charged anode (which transmit electricity) together. However, a new material could provide the quick-release binding properties needed to hold the parts together before being dissolved in room-temperature alkaline water containing sodium hydroxide. This allows the battery metals to be filtered out of the solution and air-dried, without the need for burning, which can release toxins.
And governments are now seeing the potential in battery recycling, with the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) viewing it as key for a green transition. Last month, the DoE awarded a conditional $375 million loan to Li-Cycle, a battery recycling company, to develop a materials plant near Rochester, New York. With the price of lithium rising sharply in 2022, as demand rose and supply constraints became evident, the government is looking at alternative ways to source lithium, including battery recycling. The Rochester facility will be Li-Cycle’s fourth plant in North America, but unlike its other facilities, it will not simply process battery materials but will turn recycled products into materials for use in new batteries.
Once operational, the facility is expected to recycle enough batteries for 200,000 EVs, producing 8,500 tonnes of lithium carbonate, as well as nickel sulfate and cobalt sulfate.Ajay Kochhar, co-founder and CEO of Li-Cycle, stated “Recycling is an unappreciated, or not as appreciated, alleviator of that supply need.” He added, “I think of course we need both primary, meaning mine sources, and secondary…every unit counts of lithium, nickel, cobalt. I think with the overlay of the IRA and the overlay of the corporate targets around sourcing for these materials, recycling is going to be very important.” Kochhar is confident that battery recycling could meet between 10% and 20% of the market needs for battery-grade lithium, nickel, and cobalt in the next decade.
While the expansion of mining activities is key to ensuring the stable supply of lithium and other critical minerals to the market in the green transition, battery recycling will also play a key role. With recent innovations in technology and recycling processes, governments are more willing to invest in battery recycling to ensure the critical minerals found in old batteries are not simply discarded, providing hope for the cyclical nature of Li-ion battery manufacturing.
By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com
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