Sony commercialized lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) in 1991. Now lithium-ion batteries are fully embedded in society. They are in home electronics, laptops, cell phones, tablets, power tools, and garden equipment. LIBs also power model aircraft and electric wheelchairs and so much more. They are in aerospace powering the Mars Curiosity Rover. A major use of lithium-ion batteries is for hybrid and electric vehicles creating a need for sustainable energy and battery recycling measures.
The booming popularity of electric vehicles (EVs) has resulted in the explosive growth of lithium-ion batteries, and in turn, spent batteries. Industry analysts suggest that China has already generated 500,000 metric tons of used lithium-ion batteries. By 2030, the worldwide amount of spent lithium-ion batteries is projected to be about 2 million metric tons.
Lithium Battery Recycling Lags and Strides
So far, recycling rates for lithium-ion batteries have been low: 2% in Australia and around 5% in America and Europe. That compares to virtually 100% of the lead-acid batteries from cars and trucks that are recycled in the United States.
Here to date, battery researchers have been focused on lowering the costs of new batteries and increasing their longevity. They haven’t been focused on recycling batteries. It’s been a costly and messy proposition: Battery recycling involves high temperature melting and extracting, or smelting — energy-intensive processes.
But now, fortunately, there is growing interest in this field. There is more academic research and a new breed of engineers coming out to tackle this problem. The U.S. Department of Energy opened its first lithium-ion battery recycling R&D center, the ReCell Center. Its goal is to make lithium-ion battery recycling competitive and profitable. The goal is to use recycled materials instead of continued dependence on foreign sources. The DOE also launched a $5.5 million battery recycling competition.
Technical Details for Lithium-ion Battery Recycling
So, let’s dig in: Batteries have four main components: the cathodes, anodes, electrolyte, and separator. Lithium ions are carried by the electrolytes back and forth from cathode to anode.
The materials used to make batteries are responsible for half the battery’s cost. The most common cathode metals, nickel, and cobalt are the most expensive components. Naturally, if recycling processes can be refined and costs lessened, battery recycling could reduce the cost of EVs.
There are a number of benefits of recycling batteries. Less landfill. Less mining and extraction of minerals that are a) scarce and/or b) found in countries that are less than totally stable. While research suggests that reserves of lithium and nickel are sufficient for the growing EV market, battery manufacturing could reduce global cobalt reserves by 10%. And 50% of the world’s cobalt production is in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, tied to armed conflict, illegal mining, human rights abuses, and harmful environmental practices. Lithium and manganese are other LIB metals that can be reclaimed at higher concentrations than natural ores — shortening processing.
Lithium-ion Battery Recycling Can Be Big Business
The battery recycling industry is growing. Companies like Battery Recyclers of America and Global Tech Environmental offer free pickup and payments for 2,000+ pounds of batteries. The chemistries recycled are broad including: lead-acid, lithium-ion, lithium iron phosphate, alkaline, button cells, lithium primary, wet and dry nickel-cadmium, wet and dry nickel-metal hydride, nickel-metal hydride, and silver oxide.
Lithium-ion batteries come in all sorts of packaging, making dismantling challenging, and they have varying chemistries. Some lithium-ion batteries use cathodes made of lithium cobalt oxide, others use lithium nickel manganese cobalt oxide, lithium nickel cobalt aluminum oxide, lithium iron phosphate, or other materials. A researcher in Hong Kong noted that the upshot of this is that lithium-ion batteries contain a wide diversity of ever-evolving materials, which makes recycling a challenge.
Redwood Materials has raised over $800 million for recycling lithium-ion batteries. The company is headed up by a former Tesla founder and chief technology officer JB Straubel. He left Tesla in 2019 to address what he saw as supply chain constraints tied to lithium-ion batteries. The key to this business is material purification of recycled products. Recently, Panasonic signed a contract with Redwood Materials that will return recycled copper foil back to batteries being assembled at the Tesla Gigafactory. Redwood has also partnered with Ford to help the company with its battery supply chain.
Based in Carson City, Nevada, Redwood Materials plans to expand to locations throughout North America and Europe. Redwood recycles scrap from battery cell production and consumer electronics like cell phone batteries, laptop computers, power tools, power banks, scooters, and electric bicycles. It then processes these goods, extracting cobalt, nickel, and lithium that are typically mined. Redwood then supplies the materials back to customers like Panasonic. Redwood is also working on a program that allows consumers to send in personal electronics such as smartphones for recycling.
Redwood is developing new processes to recycle materials with a focus on car batteries. The challenges include material extraction and purification. Redwoods is proud of the Panasonic deal, as anode copper foil from recycled material is going to the Gigafactory (a $5 billion joint venture between Tesla and Panasonic) and will end up in Tesla vehicles. Thus at least part of the Tesla batteries are going full circle — recycled and returned for use in another new vehicle.
Ted Flanigan runs EcoMotion, a California-based company with the mission of the cost-effective greening of cities, corporations, and campuses. He has dedicated his career to finding win-win solutions that create financial and environmental benefits while fostering a sustainable society. Connect with Ted on Facebook and Twitter, listen to The NetPositive Podcast, and read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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