- Li-ion Batteries
- Advanced Batteries
New and Improved Battery Recycling Technology Reaches Major Milestone
The search for new methods of recycling lithium ion (Li-ion) batteries reached a major milestone recently when Canadian startup Li-Cycle announced the delivery of commercially recycled battery material to a manufacturing customer. The company’s delivery includes critical Li-ion battery materials including cobalt, nickel, and lithium. Cost-effective recycling of these materials is key to building a sustainable battery industry with minimal environmental effect. Concerns around the longevity of supply availability, cost, and ethical sourcing of these materials have been major topics in the Li-ion industry.
Searching for Solutions
Li-ion technology, the market leader for EVs, consumer electronics, and grid storage, is the major power in the global advanced battery industry. The manufacturing of these batteries and mining to supply critical materials has grown exponentially over the past 5 years, yet the development of recycling systems has been slow. In mid-2018, an estimated 3% of Li-ion batteries globally were recycled, equating to up to 17 million batteries being added to landfills. By comparison, traditional lead-acid batteries are recycled at a rate of over 99%.
Li-Cycle hopes to enable major improvements in this area. The company’s approach to recycling is different from existing methods. Li-Cycle claims it can achieve a recycling rate of 80%-100% of the valuable materials in Li-ion batteries. Other recycling processes, such as those used by companies in Europe and China, are based on the pyrometallurgy process, which melts down components and typically recovers 30%-40% of key materials.
The Li-Cycle process first mechanically shreds batteries, even those that remain charged, to remove unwanted metal and plastic parts to isolate the valuable electrode materials. The second step is a hydrometallurgy process, a wet chemical process using less energy than conventional pyrometallurgy. This step takes the shredded material and removes the key components (lithium carbonate, lithium, cobalt, copper, aluminium, graphite, and iron). The company expects rapid growth in demand for its services over the coming years, having already hosted discussions with several companies servicing or directly active in the manufacturing of stationary energy storage systems.
Recycling Strategies Among Battery Manufacturers
Navigant Research, a Guidehouse company, explores Li-ion battery recycling strategies and opportunities in its report, Novel Recycling Strategies Expand the Value Proposition of Advanced Batteries. The report recommends battery manufacturers incorporate material recycling strategies into their product designs and supply chain to maximize value.
Some companies are adopting in-house recycling strategies with propriety processes. Tesla has been the most vocal about its plans, stating that, “at Gigafactory 1, Tesla is developing a unique battery recycling system that will process both battery manufacturing scrap and end-of-life batteries.” Recovery of lithium and cobalt, as well as the metals used in the battery cell (copper, aluminium, and steel), will be maximized through this system. The company also stated that “all of these materials will be recovered in forms optimized for new battery material production.”
Other battery manufacturers choose to work with third-party recyclers, such as Li-Cycle, that specialize in advanced recycling technologies and processes. While various strategies are anticipated to be used, the development of efficient and cost-effective recycling is critical to the long-term sustainability of advanced batteries to power the global energy transition.