Lithium-ion batteries have 10 times the energy density of a lead-acid battery and charged properly they can be cycled from 800 to 4,000 times before they become too degraded to perform well. Lithium-ion can also be deep cycled without damage, and they prefer to be charged relatively quickly and do not need to be float charged. This makes them great for electric vehicle applications, but eventually, heat and internal stresses cause them to become less efficient to the point that they are unusable. So who is recycling lithium-ion batteries and how is it done?
Reuse the batteries
Much like the wind turbines and the lack of planning in what to do with the giant fiberglass blades at the end of their useful life, the electric vehicle manufactures didn’t plan on what to do with used batteries from their electric cars before they started building them. The batteries are built for efficiency and not with recycling in mind, making the process of separating the metals and chemicals had been an expensive task. It had been cheaper to mine new nickel, cobalt, copper, aluminum, graphite, and lithium than to use the recycled material. But with the quickly growing automotive use, the value of used batteries is increasing rapidly.
Most of the used batteries are not completely spent when they reach the end of their useful lives in electric vehicles. While they don’t have the same capacity as when they were new, they still are capable of 50-70% of their original capacity. This makes them valuable for reuse in energy banks for homes and businesses that have solar panels. By storing power at times the solar is putting out peak power, the battery acts as a reservoir, storing when there is plenty and releasing power as needed.
The space confinements and heavy power draw of automotive use can be reduced by using a greater quantity of batteries in these backup power systems. In this way, the useful life of the batteries can be extended 5-10 more years. Tesla’s PowerWall, using new battery cells, can be used even without solar, to charge when prices are low and discharge when the price and demand on the grid is high. This can help to put less strain on the grid and save on energy bills for the customer.
Recycling used Lithium-ion
So then we are still left with what to do with the fully spent and damaged batteries. If disposed of improperly and the terminals are touched, the short circuit will cause them to rapidly heat up and “vent with fire”. A single failing cell can raise the temperature in the cell next to it and cause a chain reaction until the whole battery is consumed. Batteries in landfills can be crushed or punctured and cause fires that can be difficult to extinguish.
One of the difficulties in recycling batteries is that every manufacture makes its own blend of elements to optimize the balance between cost, longevity, safety, power output, and performance. This can dictate different recycling methods for the varying materials. But the increasing demand for the rare material in batteries is starting to make recycling profitable, besides being the right thing to do. Laptop and phone batteries have been recycled successfully for 10 years or more.
Today, companies are popping up and preparing for the huge influx of used batteries that is sure to come. With GM’s bold announcement that they will not be making gas or diesel cars after 2035, and Ford’s promise to double their investment in electric vehicles, the influx of used batteries is around the corner. The International Energy Agency predicts the number of electric vehicles on the world’s roads will increase from 3 million to 125 million by 2030.
The current state of charge in recycling
As it stands, E-waste comprises 70% of our overall toxic waste and only 12.5% of E-Waste is recycled. Of that 12.5%, 80% of E-Waste in the US and most other countries are transported to Asia where some ends up in landfills and a lot is incinerated, with lax restrictions on the emissions that they make.
Ideally, dealing with the problem closer to home makes sense. There is less shipping involved and we see the results of our actions more directly. When many Americans hear about the waste problems in Asia, they can be quick to point out that the US is doing a better job. While it is true that most of our rivers aren’t as contaminated as the rivers in Asia, we are still shipping much of our waste to Bangladesh, Laos, Ethiopia, and Senegal, where there is cheap labor and limited environmental regulation.
Companies taking on the task of recycling lithium-ion batteries.
Northvolt – Stockholm, Sweden
Stockholm-based Northvolt is covering not only the recycling of old batteries but the production of new cells. With factories in more factories planned to be operational in Sweden and Germany by 2024, Northvolt is making big strides to stay ahead of the demand. Their goal is to build the greenest batteries in the world, by addressing all the aspects of the recycling and building process. While not yet possible, they explain that it is a continual process of refinement and improvement.
As of December 2019, Northvolt in Poland was producing cells and ramping up to an annual capacity of 350 MWh per year. One advantage to the location that they chose for their factory in Sweden is the close proximity of hydroelectric. The new factory will run 100% off renewable power.
AkkuSer – Finland
In Finland, a company called AkkuSer is using its own Dry-Technology method, which is a mechanical process based on a two-stage crushing line followed by magnetic and mechanical separation units. The outputs of the process are metal concentrates which are delivered as raw material to metal refineries. Their recycling process enables safe treatment of battery waste and a good recycling efficiency, with more than 90% of the materials contained in batteries being recovered and sent to be used in new battery production.
Duesenfeld – Germany
A German company, Duesenfeld builds an electrolyte recovery method that can be installed in a 40ft shipping container and brought to the source of the batteries. This method breaks the batteries down and sorts them into their components so they can be shipped and processed without the danger of explosion or fire. So this also reduces transportation costs as the material is more compact and doesn’t need to be shipped as hazardous waste.
Using their mechanical recycling process alone, Duesenfeld can achieve a material recycling rate of 72%, but treating batteries with their hydrometallurgical process, increases the material recycling rate to 91%.
Umicore – Hoboken, Belgium
Umicore is a world-leading materials recycler with 11,000 employees worldwide, and since 2017, they have focused on “clean mobility,” including the recycling of all components of electric vehicles.
They use a pyro-metallurgical phase to convert the batteries into 3 fractions. First, the alloy, containing the valuable metals Cobalt, Nickel, and Copper designed for the downstream hydro-metallurgical process.
Second is the slag fraction which can be used in the construction industry or further processed for metal recovery. The slag from NiMH batteries can be processed to a Rare Earth Elements concentrate that is then further refined through cooperation with Solvay. And third, is clean air, released from the stack after it has been treated by the Umicore’s unique gas cleaning process.
Working with Engie, they repurpose batteries that still are good, to be used in power storage in conjunction with renewable resources. And their main plant can recycle 7,000 metric tons of Li-ion batteries a year.
Redwood Materials – Nevada, USA
With their plan for ”unmanufacturing”, Redwood Materials take old lithium batteries and melt them down, and separates them into their original elements. They claim around 80-98% recovery rates, depending on the material. Owned by JB Straubel, one of the founders of Tesla, Redwood says they aren’t affiliated with Tesla.
Tesla is recycling their own batteries in-house, as they claim there isn’t enough life left in them to reuse them when they get the batteries back. Understandably, it’s their reputation on the line if a used battery has issues in a repurposing application.
US Department of Energy
Secretary Rick Perry announced in January of 2019, the creation of the DOE’s first Li-ion battery recycling R&D center, the ReCell Center. According to the program’s director, Jeffrey S. Spangenberger, ReCell’s key goals include making Li-ion battery recycling competitive and profitable and using recycling to help reduce US dependence on foreign sources of cobalt and other battery materials. ReCell includes some 50 researchers based at six national laboratories and universities.
There are many more companies like Fortum in Europe, Li-Cycle in Canada, Neometals in Australia, Recupyl SAS based in Europe, and Proterra in California. And this just scratches the surface of the companies that are getting into the battery game.
Some of the enforcement of recycling Lithium-ion batteries
The Product Stewardship Institute advocates nationally for “extended producer responsibility” (EPR) laws that require all battery producers to sustainably finance and run convenient recycling programs for batteries of all types. EPR systems would create a level playing field that shares responsibility fairly among producers and relieves governments from the costs of local battery recycling efforts.
Vermont passed legislation to, in part, require all primary battery manufacturers to fund and participate in a product stewardship program. Other states require battery producers to offer or fund the recycling of rechargeable consumer batteries including CA, MN, IA, NY, NH, ME, MD, and FL
Since financial contributions from battery producers to the recycling program are voluntary in most states, the current program also enables “free riders”; companies whose products are recycled at the expense of other companies.
According to uRecycle, in 2006 the European Union introduced the EU Battery Directive (2006/66/EC), a set of rules concerning the waste management of batteries in EU states. They requiring battery producers to finance collection and recycling programs, and all portable, industrial and automotive batteries are recycled. They also set minimum recycling efficiency targets for specific battery types and maximum limits for the amount of mercury and cadmium contained in batteries.
Where can you recycle lithium-ion batteries?
Its important to note the danger of including lead batteries and lithium-ion batteries to be recycled. The different chemicals can cause explosions and fires in the recycling plant if they are not sorted out. Second, always recycle the battery in a discharged state, lithium-ion batteries are much more stable at lower levels of charge.
Call2Recycle heads the program at The Home Depot and Lowes that recycles lithium-ion batteries.
Earth911 Provides a very complete resource to find places to recycle batteries near you. They also cover plastics, building materials, and many other things that might surprise you.
To learn everything there is to know about charging, storing, and using all types of batteries, check out Battery University, written by Cadex Electronics Inc, it’s all free and there is a lot of good info.
Recycling drywall is an interesting topic that intertwines with coal-burning power plants. There is also high recyclability of asphalt shingles, as they can be mixed into the asphalt that is used to pave roads. Have you considered that carpet is plastic and can be recycled too?
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