Advances in Lithium-Ion Battery Recycling Processes
A new method for recycling batteries has been developed at Berkeley National Lab that is easier, less expensive and works better than traditional methods.
Total Battery Recycling is Low
The percentage of the world’s lithium-ion batteries that are recycled is estimated to be quite low. In the US a 2019 report said less than 5% of lithium-ion batteries were collected and recycled, according to the US Department of Energy. This figure is likely even lower globally because many countries lack the capacity or infrastructure to safely and effectively recycle lithium-ion batteries.
Additionally, there are challenges associated with recycling lithium-ion batteries, such as the need for special equipment and know-how to separate the various components, which can further hamper the recycling process.
Berkeley Lab scientists have engineered a way to help facilitate recycling by easily dissolving the glue-like material that binds a battery’s active components together. The binder is intended as a component of the glue the battery manufacturers use, allowing the glue to be dissolved in room-temperature water.
When batteries are made with a quick-release binder, they can be opened, placed in alkaline water with sodium hydroxide, and agitated. The sodium hydroxide dissolves the binder and releases the valuable materials inside. These are then separated from the water using a filter membrane similar to a desalination unit for water.
Demand is Growing Worldwide
A process for making battery recycling more effective and cheaper is very important. The consumption of lithium-ion batteries is increasing rapidly. According to a McKinsey report, the demand for lithium is expected to grow by 25 to 26 percent annually by 2030. This growth is largely driven by the proliferation of EVs, which rely on large lithium-ion batteries for power. By 2030, batteries are expected to account for 95 percent of total lithium demand, reaching 3.3 to 3.8 million metric tons.
The rapid adoption of EVs is just one factor driving the rapid increase in the consumption of lithium-ion batteries. The development of new technologies that use lithium-ion batteries in other applications, such as energy storage, communications, and medical devices, contributes to the increasing demand for lithium-ion batteries.
As lithium-ion batteries become increasingly more efficient and cost-effective, their use in various applications and demand is expected to increase even further.
Some would say that battery manufacturers are in a great position for growth, and they are, but they must stay ahead of the curve when it comes to their consumption of raw material components. Due to the rapid growth in the industry, they may soon have difficulty ensuring adequate supplies of raw materials, such as lithium, cobalt and graphite, making recycling even more important.
Raw Material Supply Chain Issues
The IEA’s recent report that the world could face lithium shortages by 2025 is certainly concerning. It is essential to consider how soon will the world run out of raw materials and elements to make these batteries and how will we ensure a steady supply.
While current estimates suggest that enough lithium is available to meet the demand for the next few years, this may not be the case in the long run as the global market continues to grow.
Furthermore, the mining and refining of lithium is an energy-intensive process and can have significant environmental impacts. Therefore, it is important to ensure that the resources used to produce lithium are used efficiently and sustainably, including recycling.
It is encouraging, then, that the US DOE estimates that recycled material could “provide one-third of United States cathode material needs for lithium-ion batteries by 2030”. This suggests that the situation may improve quickly and that more of the world’s lithium-ion batteries may be recycled.
Current lithium-ion battery recycling methods involve shredding, grinding, and burning the materials to recover the metals for recycling, a costly, wasteful and dirty process and, on average, only recovers 50% of the elements. The updated method is easier, cheaper, and more environmentally friendly. Best of all, more of the valuable elements inside are recovered, making the process more profitable. Because more recycled material is captured and separated, more material is output. Output that is sold as feedstock back into the battery manufacturing supply chain.
Berkeley Lab appears to be leading the way in this important advance in lithium-lon battery recycling. It intends to commercialize the product after additional testing on larger format batteries, like those found in EVs and industrial applications. They will license the technology to manufacturers, and with any luck, the recycling industry will soon become much more efficient.