Consumer electronics use batteries with lithium cobalt oxide cathodes. Electric vehicle batteries need a more complex blend of lithium, cobalt, nickel, and manganese.
So far, recycling them has not been economically feasible. No regulatory framework exists for it.
Nevertheless, lithium-ion battery recycling has attracted the attention of both academic researchers and commercial companies.
Problems with lithium-ion batteries
People who care about the environment turn to electric vehicles and hybrids. After all, they don’t burn fossil fuels and don’t emit greenhouse gases. That doesn’t mean all is well. Manufacturing the batteries requires mining the minerals. And mining always comes with hidden costs.
For example, more than half of the lithium in the world comes from salt flats that cover parts of Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile. It’s in one of the driest regions on earth. Every ton of lithium extracted requires more than half a million gallons of water. As it turns out, mining operations are depleting groundwater and degrading the soil.
The other minerals required to make batteries likewise cause problems, especially cobalt. Cobalt is a hard, brittle heavy metal that can be magnetized. Plentiful in the earth’s core, it is not abundant in the crust. Cobalt ores are usually byproducts of mining nickel or copper.
The water needed to mine lithium is water indigenous farmers in those three countries can’t use. So lithium mining takes a toll not only on the local environment but on the ability of local people to make a living.
The Democratic Republic of Congo has nearly half of the world’s reserves of cobalt. It provides more than two thirds of the world’s production. Mining cobalt produces a toxic dust linked to birth defects, respiratory illnesses, and skin irritations. It contaminates both air and soil. Cobalt is also suspected of causing cancer. And about 20% of the cobalt mined in Congo comes from artisanal mines that depend on child labor.
What’s more, shortages of lithium and cobalt are expected after 2024. Demand for these minerals is expected be at least 30 times more in 2040 than it is now. Scientists are exploring alternatives to lithium batteries, but none is yet ready for industrial-scale production. Fortunately, commercial-scale lithium battery recycling has begun to grow.
Currently, the recycling plants are designed with a capacity of thousands of tons. They may have trouble obtaining enough batteries to operate at peak efficiency. EV batteries last a long time, though. And after they can no longer power vehicles, they still work for stationary storage.
It will be years before the volume of totally spent batteries reaches a crisis stage. Companies can’t recycle more material than what is available. For lithium-ion battery recycling to succeed, companies must be cost-effective and profitable.
Battery manufacturers have long explored how to reduce or eliminate using cobalt. Tesla will soon use cobalt-free lithium batteries for energy storage. Its main Chinese competitor, BYD Co., is phasing out both cobalt and nickel from its batteries.
The outlook for lithium-ion battery recycling
The British company IDTechEx has recently issued a report titled “Li-ion Battery Recycling Market 2022-2042.” In theory, it says, it will be possible to meet about 15% of the demand for cobalt from recycled batteries. In practice, however, the figure is more likely to be 8%.
Battery recycling is likely to supply more than 6% of demand for lithium at the same time. The report also predicts that the amount of cobalt and other metals recovered from recycling batteries will grow tenfold by 2042.
The main obstacle by 2030 will be collecting enough spent high-cobalt batteries from consumer electronics, since large quantities of spent vehicle batteries will not enter the recycling stream till later. All the stakeholders in the supply chain need to take responsibility for the environmental and social impacts of their products and work to recover more of them. In turn, that will require a carefully considered regulatory framework.
IDTechEx notes that cobalt is mostly used in consumer electronics. It expects slower growth in consumer electronics than in electric vehicles. Therefore, it should be possible to increase the proportion of recycled cobalt in electronic gadgets.
The report also forecasts recycling of lithium, nickel, and manganese. Recycling cannot fix all the challenges the lithium-ion battery industry faces, but it has an important role.
The Chinese government has made original equipment manufacturers responsible for collecting batteries no longer capable of powering cars. That requirement will boost battery recycling there.
The US is somewhat behind the Chinese in battery recycling. Existing law makes sure that almost all lead-acid batteries get recycled. Only eight states have waste management regulations for lithium-ion batteries. Only three explicitly ban disposing of them in landfills.
Despite the lack of coherent state and federal regulations, the American lithium-ion battery recycling industry has started to grow rapidly. It has the potential to create the kind of closed-loop system that already exists for lead-acid batteries.
Technological innovations lithium-ion battery recycling
Traditionally, lithium battery recycling has involved crushing the batteries to create “black mass.” It then extracts metals by melting or dissolving it. This process breaks everything down into separate elements, which must then be put back together again to make new batteries. In other words, the process destroys the most valuable chemical structure of the batteries.
Handling black mass more efficiently
The Canadian company Li-Cycle built North America’s largest lithium-ion battery recycling facility in 2021. It’s on the former Eastman Kodak factory in Rochester, New York. By the end of the year, it announced it would enlarge it.
Up till now, battery recycling companies have separated EV battery packs into cells and discharged them before any further work. Li-Cycle’s process skips these steps and process larger modules that still retain a charge. The company has also determined that it does not need to know the exact chemistry of any of the batteries.
The company operates what it calls a hub and spoke model. The Rochester facility houses both a spoke and the hub. Li-Cycle operates another hub in Kingston, Ontario and plans to build a third near Phoenix, Arizona. The spokes receive spent lithium-ion batteries and grind them into black mass.
The hub receives the black mass and uses a wet chemistry/hydrometallurgical process to refine it into battery-grade materials. The original facility can process 25,000 tons of black mass annually. The enlarged facility will be able to handle 35,000 tons.
Besides Li-Cycle, about a hundred companies worldwide either recycle lithium-ion batteries or plan to. Most are in China or South Korea. Several plan to operate in North America or Europe. Most startups fail. The world will not have a hundred recycling companies, but we might see more than a dozen succeed.
Many of these startups aim to make recycling lithium-ion batteries less labor-intensive, more efficient, and cleaner.
Bypassing the need to produce black mass
Researchers at the University of California at San Diego removed the cathodes (the part that contains the lithium, cobalt, nickel, and manganese) and soak them in a bath of hot lithium salts. They dried this solution to a powder, quickly heated it to 800º C, and then let it cool very slowly.
This procedure required only half the energy of the standard practices. What’s more, it preserves the chemical structure of the cathodes.
This material makes batteries with the same energy storage capacity, charging time, and lifetime as batteries made from virgin material.
The main difficulty with this procedure is that the UCSD team had to separate cathodes from the rest of the battery manually. Two west-coast companies have started to explore how to automate the process and make it work at industrial scale.
Researchers at Aalto University in Finland have developed another way to replenish the lithium depleted from old batteries using electrolysis. Again, their process works well in the lab, and it remains to be seen how quickly it can scale up for industrial use.
We can see a looming crisis of an avalanche of spent lithium-ion batteries on the horizon. Fortunately, we can see good progress on plans to deal with it.
Battery parts can be recycled without crushing or melting / Science Daily. April 29, 2021
Battery recycling efforts pick up as cobalt, lithium face potential deficit / Tracy Hu, Anthony Barich, and Camille Erickson, S & P Market Intelligence. June 9, 2021
Developing countries pay environmental cost of electric car batteries / United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. July 22, 2020
Li-Cycle to upsize Rochester Hub facility in face of growing demand / Tim Sylvia, PV Magazine. December 14, 2021. Link no longer works
Lithium-ion battery recycling finally takes off in North America and Europe / Jean Kumagai, IEEE Spectrum. January 6, 2021
Simple, energy-efficient recycling process for lithium-ion batteries / Prachi Patel, IEEE Spectrum. January 29, 2018
Study says battery recycling could boost cobalt supplies / Brian Taylor, Recycling Today. March 6, 2022 [Link no longer works as of April 25, 2023]