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Recycling Gives Lithium-Ion Batteries a ‘Second Chance’

With Millions More Batteries in Production, Diverting Them From Landfills is a Priority



Lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles.  ©iStock/SweetBunFactory
Lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles. ©iStock/SweetBunFactory

The global electric vehicle (EV) industry boomed last year, spurring demand for more than 750 gigawatt hours (GWh) of battery output, with EVs accounting for 95% of that growth.

 

This has led to more mining of lithium, cobalt, nickel, and other minerals to feed the battery production sector. Global demand for batteries is expected to grow 30% annually, reaching 4,500 GWh a year by 2030, according to global management consulting firm McKinsey & Co.

 

However, the fate of the lithium-ion batteries (LIB) that currently power the EV industry remains a compelling topic. The batteries are estimated to last eight years or 100,000 miles and then die, after which they are most often destined for landfills or incineration.

 

Recycling LIBs has not yet caught on—in 2019, only 5% of LIBs were recycled, according to Chemical & Engineering News.

 

As a result, “[b]illions of dead lithium-ion batteries, including many from electric vehicles, are accumulating because there is no cost-effective process to revive them,” said a writer from Princeton University’s Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment in 2022.

 

Helping consumers recycle these devices is an environmental priority.  

 

“Recycling used lithium-ion batteries (and the devices that contain them) will help address emerging issues associated with the clean energy transition and prevent problems caused by inappropriate battery disposal,” said the US Environmental Protection Agency.

 

Earlier this year, the Biden Administration announced $62 million to support 17 projects “to increase consumer participation in consumer electronics battery recycling and improve the economics of battery recycling.”

 

“Capturing the full battery supply chain—from sourcing critical materials to manufacturing to recycling—puts the U.S. in the driver’s seat as we build our clean energy economy,” U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm said as part of the White House’s announcement in March.

 

Among the advantages of LIBs are their usable cycle life, extended cycle life, fast charging speed, and high energy efficiency. These make them suitable for a wide range of consumer electronic applications such as EVs, energy storage, laptop computers, mobile devices, medical devices, smart watches, and drones.


Fire Risk

An RC LiPo (Lithium polymer) battery on fire. Image source: Superuser.com
An RC LiPo (Lithium polymer) battery on fire. Image source: Superuser.com

Although EVs are significantly less likely to catch fire than gasoline-powered vehicles, there are alarming reports, especially via social media, about sudden and spontaneous combustion of EVs. At the heart of this phenomenon is something called “thermal runaway”—a chain of exothermic (heat-releasing) reactions, increase in reaction rate, and increased heat for more exothermic reactions, forming a positive feedback loop. If LIBs are damaged or overcharged, they may overheat and catch fire via thermal runaway. These fires can also generate emissions of toxic fluoride gases, particularly hydrogen fluoride (a hazardous gas) and phosphoryl fluoride.

 

To enhance safety, LIB manufacturers incorporate at least two safety devices into the batteries—a current interrupt device (CID) and a positive temperature coefficient (PTC) device. The electric resistance of the PTC device rises sharply when the temperature rises. This increased resistance reduces the rate of current flowing through the battery. A 2021 study in the Journal of Energy Chemistry said enhancements in cooling and cell balance were among the many strategies to improve LIB safety.

 

Production Issues

There are various concerns around the production of LIBs, including sourcing of lithium from salt flats in South America, energy intensive production in China and Australia, and cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The US was the largest miner of lithium in the 1990s, but it was overtaken by Chile in 2010, making Chile one of the current top three global extractors of lithium alongside China and Australia.

There are various concerns around the production of LIBs, including sourcing of lithium from salt flats in South America, energy intensive production in China and Australia, and cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Children are used in mining operations for conflict materials in Kaji, Congo.  ©Flickr/Enough Project
Children are used in mining operations for conflict materials in Kaji, Congo. ©Flickr/Enough Project

Lithium extraction poses additional problems: It requires excessive water consumption in arid areas. It can be fatal to marine life when it becomes a source of water pollution, and byproducts of lithium extraction can include large amounts of magnesium and lime waste.

 

Another core EV battery component—cobalt—may even be turned into a so-called conflict mineral.


“Although cobalt has so far not been included in supply chain legislation among the raw materials defined as ‘conflict minerals,’ such as tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold, it has attracted attention,” Prof. Jana Hönke and Lisa Skender said in a 2022 blog post reprinted by Infraglob website.

 

“Due to the surging global demand for cobalt, there are increasing reports of poor working conditions, child labor and exploitation in cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” they wrote. “As a solution to increase the enforceability of human rights in the context of an ‘ethical’ cobalt trade is being discussed.”

 

Currently, only the aforementioned minerals, known as 3TGs, are considered by the European Union to be mined using forced labor or used to finance armed conflict. But there is fresh concern about the armed forces in DRC and their massive cobalt mining operations. Moreover, China controls seven of DRC’s largest mines, raising concerns about a monopoly on the precious metal.

 

End-of-life and Recycling Issues

Car manufacturers, such as Nissan and Tesla, estimate that the lifespan of LIBs will be eight years or 100,000 miles,  Tobias Walker wrote on AZOCleanTech website.

 

However, he wrote, “[u]sing today’s methods, reusing batteries for another five to seven years offers a cleaner environmental solution. For example, using second-life batteries could reduce the gross energy demand and global warming potential by up to 70%.”

Using today’s methods, reusing batteries for another five to seven years offers a cleaner environmental solution. For example, using second-life batteries could reduce the gross energy demand and global warming potential by up to 70%.

This is because end-of-life LIBs are a resource of highly enriched materials that can be recovered and reused, reducing the need for exploration and mining.

 

Recycling LIBs could also reduce the amount of devices that area sent to landfills. This in turn could reduce metals, such as cobalt, nickel, manganese, and others, from leaking into the soil and polluting groundwater. Furthermore, recycling LIBs could reduce raw material imports from countries with armed conflict, illegal mining, human rights abuses, and harmful environmental practices.

 

Meanwhile, fluctuations in the prices of battery raw materials can adversely affect the economics of recycling LIBs. This is especially true for cobalt, the price of which fell drastically in 2019, thereby incentivizing manufacturers to choose newly mined materials over recycled materials.

 

These challenges have encouraged a search for alternatives, such as non-lithium-based battery chemistries like iron-air batteries and sodium-ion batteries. Other research topics are on improved mineral efficiency and increases in energy density, improved safety, cost reduction, and increases in charging speed. There are also attempts to produce LIBs with reduced flammability and volatility using aqueous lithium-ion batteries, ceramic solid electrolytes, polymer electrolytes, ionic liquids, and heavily fluorinated systems.

 

‘Black Mass’

Some LIB components—iron, copper, nickel, and cobalt, for example—are safe for incineration and in landfills, but they can also be recycled. Cobalt is the most expensive, and thus its recovery is a major focus of recycling.

 

Recycling of LIBs involves numerous stages, including collection, evaluation, disassembling, and separation of components. The batteries are very often shredded. This process creates “black mass,” or granular material from the shredded cathodes and anodes, along with copper and aluminum foils, separators (thin plastic), steel canisters, and electrolyte.

 

Black mass can be recycled further and made into material for new cathodes and anodes. It is often sent to another facility where the valuable metals within it, such as cobalt, nickel, and lithium, are recovered.


A schematic of a blast furnace used to convert iron oxides to iron metal.  ©UC Davis Library (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
A schematic of a blast furnace used to convert iron oxides to iron metal. ©UC Davis Library (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

The most commonly used approach is pyrometallurgy, a smelting process that utilizes a high-temperature furnace to reduce the components of the metal oxides to an alloy which can then be separated into its various components by hydrometallurgy. The remaining slag can be reused in the concrete industry.

 

Pyrometallurgy furnaces operate at temperatures approaching 1,500°C (2,700°F) to recover cobalt, nickel, and copper, but they cannot recover lithium, aluminum, or the various organic compounds that are burned in the process. These plants also operate at a high capital cost because of the need to treat the toxic fluorine compounds that are emitted during the smelting process.


The second process, hydrometallurgy is a less expensive and less energy-intensive leaching process using strong acids to recover lithium and other metals (recovered by pyrometallurgy) at temperatures below 100°C (212°F). However, it requires the use of caustic materials such as hydrochloric, nitric, and sulfuric acids and hydrogen peroxide.


Currently, researchers are experimenting with a third, direct recycling process, called “cathode-to-cathode” recycling, in which energy is saved by preserving the cathode structure, thereby reducing the amount of manufacturing needed in further recycling.

Pyrometallurgy … recover[s] cobalt, nickel, and copper, but … cannot recover lithium, aluminum, or the various organic compounds, … [while] hydrometallurgy … recover[s] lithium and other metals … [but] requires the use of caustic materials such as hydrochloric, nitric, and sulfuric acids and hydrogen peroxide.

Lithium-Ion Battery Reuse and Recycling Companies

Canadian LIB recovery company Li-Cycle managed to produce 6,825 tons of black mass and related material in 2023. The company operates a two-step process in which LIBs are shredded without the need for dismantling or discharging, and processed with minimal solid and liquid waste, zero combustion risk, zero discharge of wastewater and reduced emissions into the atmosphere.

 

In Massachusetts, Ascend Elements focuses on the production of cathodes from discarded batteries and manufacturing scrap using their Hydro-to-Cathode process. This delivers precursor and finished cathode materials that can subsequently be used by other manufacturers for LIB production.

 

Redwood Materials, founded by Tesla co-founder JB Straubel, recovers metals from batteries and produces anodes and cathodes for electric vehicles. The company is developing a complete closed-loop, domestic supply chain for LIBs, including collection, refurbishment, recycling, refining, and remanufacturing of battery materials. It claims 95% recovery of key battery materials and aims to produce enough anode and cathode for 1 million electric vehicles annually by 2025. The company’s hydrometallurgy facility was the first commercial-scale nickel production plant to open in the US for a decade and is the only commercial-scale source of lithium supply to come online in the US in decades. While traditional mining projects often take more than 10 years to become operational, Redwood took around two years to build and activate its facility.

 

Opportunity for Higher Efficiency and Sustainability in the Years Ahead

Given that the global market for battery recycling is expected to reach $13 billion by 2030, there is an increasing opportunity to grow the battery supply chain. The recycling market is currently dominated by China and South Korea while in other countries, particularly in the West, expansion of the market will depend on the provision of subsidies and on government regulation. Manufacturers outside of Asia have decided that entry into this market is not currently feasible. In order to change that perception, governments will have to ramp up technology and investment opportunities in order to remain competitive with China and South Korea in a range of electronics sectors, particularly electric vehicles.

 

Meanwhile, in addition to its March 2024 announcement, the US Energy Department has already pledged to spend more than $192 million in new funding for recycling batteries, according to Industry EMEA, a website that curates news for international engineers. The Energy Department is also launching an advanced battery research and development (R&D) consortium and continuing the Lithium-Ion Battery Recycling Prize. This supports the Biden Administration’s goal to achieve a US net-zero carbon economy by 2050.

 

Another boon to LIB recycling industries are studies showing that batteries manufactured from recycled materials are even more efficient than those utilizing newly mined materials. The promise of improved EV charging and longer-lasting batteries will help develop a more sustainable and efficient global clean energy system in the years ahead.

 

*Robin Whitlock is an England-based freelance journalist specializing in environmental issues, climate change, and renewable energy, with a variety of other professional interests, including green transportation.

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