Since 2005, the commercialised li-ion battery has surged, starting with electronics and expanding into many applications, including the growing electric and hybrid vehicle industry. As the popularity of electric vehicles starts to grow explosively, so does the pile of spent li-ion batteries that once powered those cars. Industry analysts predict that by 2020, China alone will generate some 550,000 tons (500,000 tonnes) of used Li-ion batteries and that by 2030, the worldwide number will hit 2.2 million tons (2 million tonnes) per year.
But the technologies to optimize recycling of these batteries have not kept pace. If current trends for handling these spent batteries hold, most of those batteries may end up in landfills even though Li-ion batteries can be recycled.
In 2009, far-sightedly, the US Department of Energy DOE granted US$9.5 million to W. Novis Smith and Scott Swoffer at Toxco in California to build America’s first recycling facility for li-ion vehicle batteries.
Toxco used the funds to expand an existing facility in Lancaster, Ohio, that already recycled the lead-acid and nickel-metal hydride batteries used in hybrid-electric vehicles. The new facility opened in 2015 and is currently in operation. It recycles a multitude of li-ion batteries, including those that have substituted cobalt for other minerals, including iron phosphate, manganese spinal, and nickel manganese. (toxcommc.com)
In 2018 China recycled around 67,000 tons (61,000 tonnes) of li-ion batteries 2018, or 69 % of all the stock available for recycling worldwide. The People’s Republic has benefited from around a decade of mobile phone manufacturing, which has enabled it to perfect li-ion battery recycling as part of a growing handset refurbishing industry.
Hunan Brunp Recycling Technology, a subsidiary of li-ion battery leader CATL, recycled about 30,000 tons (27,000 tonnes) of batteries. Meanwhile, Quzhou Huayou Cobalt New Material has roughly 60,000 tons (40,000 tonnes) of li-ion battery recycling capacity a year and recycled around 10,000 tons (9.100 tonnes) in 2018. Recycling is also being carried out by Ganzhou Highpower Technology and Guangdong Guanghua Sci-Tech.
In 2018, researchers in the UK formed a large consortium dedicated to improving Li-ion battery recycling, specifically from electric vehicles. Led by the University of Birmingham, the Reuse and Recycling of Li-ion Batteries (ReLiB) project brings together some 50 scientists and engineers at eight academic institutions, and it includes 14 industry partners. (relib.org.uk)
In February 2019, the United States Department of Energy (DOE) opened the ReCell Center a battery recycling research and development center at Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois.
The goal of the R&D facility is to reclaim and recycle materials such as cobalt and lithium from spent li-ion batteries. Launched with a US$15 million investment and headquartered at Argonne National Laboratory, ReCell includes some 50 researchers from Argonne; the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL); Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and several universities, including Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Massachusetts, the University of California at San Diego and Michigan Technological University.
Recycled materials from li-ion batteries can be reused in new batteries, reducing production costs by 10% to 30 %. This could help lower the overall cost of electric vehicle (EV) batteries closer to the DOE’s goal of US$80 per kilowatt hour, says the agency. The ReCell Center is supported by the DOE with US$15 million in funding over three years, and its work will include development of test beds and a process scale-up facility at Argonne. (recellcenter.org)
The DOE also announced its US$5.5 million Li-ion Battery Recycling Prize. The prize encourages entrepreneurs to find innovative solutions to collecting, storing and transporting discarded li-ion batteries for eventual recycling. It will award cash prizes totaling US$5.5 million to contestants in three phases designed to accelerate the development of solutions from concept to prototype.
The ReCell collaborators also will use existing modeling and analysis tools to help industry determine how to optimize value. EverBatt, Argonne’s closed-loop battery life-cycle model evaluates the techno-economic and environmental impacts of each stage of a battery’s life, including recycling. NREL’s supply chain analysis tool provides a birds-eye view of the interconnections between raw material availability, primary manufacture, recycling, and demand.
Worcester Polytechnic Institute is researching the effects of impurities on the cathode materials used to make li-ion batteries. After 7 years’ research, Yan Wang, a WPI William Smith Dean’s Professor of Mechanical Engineering who developed a process for recycling li-ion batteries that can recover and reuse cathode materials regardless of their chemistry is leading the project. Yan Wang founded Battery Resourcers in Worcester to demonstrate that the process can be scaled up to near-commercial capacity. (wpi.edu)
In Germany, Volkswagen started battery recycling in 2020 at Volkswagen Group’s component plant in Salzgitter, with an initial capacity to recycle roughly 1,200 tons (1089 tonnes) of EV batteries per year, equal to the batteries from about 3,000 vehicles. The recycling rate of raw materials in Salzgitter is around 72%, which is already a lot higher than the industry average.
Using a special shredder, the individual battery parts can be ground up, the liquid electrolyte can be cleaned off, and the components separated into “black powder.” This contains the valuable raw materials cobalt, lithium, manganese, and nickel, which, while requiring further physical separation, are then ready for re-use in new batteries.
In the long term, Volkswagen wants to recycle about 97 % of all raw materials in the battery packs. In France, Renault and Euro Dieuxe Industrie, a Veolia subsidiary, are employing a unique hydrometallurgical process that allows the recovery of precious metals such as cobalt and nickel contained in the batteries of electric vehicles, in order to promote their re-use in various industrial applications or in chemistry for the manufacture of battery cells.
CSIRO’s Australian Battery Recycling Initiative is preparing to tackle Australia’s annual 3,600 tons (3300 tonnes) of li-ion battery waste. In September 2019 following Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s meeting with President Donald Trump, the CSIRO is joining ReCell Center’s industrial advisory council to deepen collaboration on li-ion recycling.
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