The EV industry grows, and so does the demand for batteries, which nowadays are of the Li-ion type. According to industry analysts, the estimated global generation of used Li-ion batteries will reach 2 million metric tons per year by 2030. These popular power packs contain valuable metals and other materials that can be recovered, processed, and reused. But still, it is not a worldwide practise. In Australia, for example, only 2–3% of battery batteries are collected and sent offshore for recycling.
- What’s the challenge?
The US Department of Energy (DOE) only recently opened its first battery-recycling R&D centre, the ReCell Centre. In January, the DOE also announced the $5.5 million Battery Recycling Prize, which encourages entrepreneurs to devise innovative ways to collect, store, and transport used Li-ion batteries to recycling centres. This is a first step in reusing them. But since most recycled batteries are melted and extracted, or smelted, accomplishing the task, becomes a challenge. Large commercial facilities in Asia, Europe, and Canada consume a significant amount of energy. The plants are expensive to build and operate, necessitate sophisticated equipment to treat smelting emissions, yet they do not recover all of the battery materials. Last but not least the large fluctuations in the prices of raw battery materials cast a shadow on the economics of recycling
It is also notable that Li-ion batteries contain “a wide diversity of ever-evolving materials, which makes recycling challenging,” says Liang An, a battery-recycling specialist. Each cell contains a cathode, anode, separator, and electrolyte. Each of the parts can be constructed by different combinations of materiales and thus, the battery chemistry also complicates recycling.
If we consider the automotive industry large battery packs that power electric vehicles can contain thousands of cells organised into modules. Sensors, safety devices, and circuitry that controls battery operation are also included in the packs, adding another layer of complexity and cost to dismantling and recycling.
- What are the benefits?
Nevertheless, recycling has the potential to reduce landfill waste while also saving money. According to Zhi Sun of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, buried batteries can leak cobalt, nickel, manganese, and other metals into soil and groundwater, endangering ecosystems and human health. The same holds true for the lithium fluoride salts (LiPF6), which are also soluble in the organic solvents used in battery electrolytes.
Also not negligible is the possible reduction of the production process, which could affect the geological reserves of a number of metals through 2050. Mining metal-sulfide ores for battery metals is energy-intensive and emits SOx, which can cause acid rain.
The components of a Li-ion battery have value and can be recovered and reused. Currently, most recyclers recover just the metals. Hydrometallurgy processing, which is practised commercially in China, offers a less energy-intensive alternative. The company’s process involves removing the electrolyte with supercritical carbon dioxide, then crushing the cell and separating the components physically. This permits recovering and reusing battery materials without costly processing. Specificly, multiple single-metal compounds that must be combined to make new cathode material. In Europe, Germany Volkswagen Group Components comes across with a mechanical process: Once the battery enters the recycling process, it is first drained and dismantled. A so-called “black powder” is produced, which contains valuable graphite as well as lithium, manganese, cobalt, and nickel.
The material can be used as secondary raw material for the construction of new batteries.