A Day Will Come When Lithium-Ion Battery Recycling Is Practical, But It Is Not This Day

At present, the technologies required to effectively recycle lithium-ion batteries and recover the embodied metal values are both complex and poorly developed. If you shred a lithium-ion battery, the lithium will react with moisture in the air and ignite the electrolyte and separators. While cryogenic and inert atmosphere techniques minimize combustion risk, they’re expensive in practice. Once you overcome the combustion risk and shred lithium-ion batteries you end up with small pieces of metal foil that are coated with multi-metal or carbon powders. Here too, there are ways to separate battery shreds into purer waste streams, but they’re expensive. Between the costs of fire prevention, material separation and recycling, it’s a big challenge.

If you decide to shortcut the process and simply toss scrap batteries into a UHT furnace, the separators and electrolytes contribute a little process heat, the nickel, copper, cobalt, iron and manganese are recovered in a multi-metal alloy that’s difficult to separate into pure metals, and the lithium and aluminum are recovered in a slag. The alloy and the slag must then be further processed with hydro-metallurgical techniques to recover commodity grade metals.

In 2009, the Department of Energy was authorized to dole out $2 billion in ARRA battery manufacturing grants. The only category of grants that was not fully awarded was “Area of Interest 4: Advanced Lithium-ion Battery Recycling Facilities” which earmarked $25 million for two $12.5 million awards. Since the funding solicitation only drew $9.5 million in acceptable funding applications, the remaining $15.5 million was not awarded.

Any time there are no takers for free government money, it says something.

Historical impediments

While the technical challenges of lithium-ion battery recycling are real, there are solutions and historically nontechnical problems have been more important. The impediments include:

  • Low metal prices – technology metal prices trended downward from 2010 through 2015 and market prices for lithium and cobalt have almost tripled in the last two years, so the attractive recoverable metal values in the table are a recent development.
  • Small battery sizes – lithium-batteries historically ranged from 10 to 50 wh of capacity and weighed from 2 to 10 ounces, so it takes thousands of used batteries to generate a ton of recycling feedstock.
  • No infrastructure – while used lead-acid batteries are invariably returned to avoid a core charge when a new battery is installed, there is no established infrastructure to collect, package and transport used lithium-ion batteries for recycling.
  • No reliable supply chains – without a collection infrastructure, there can be no reliable supply chains and the biggest challenge most recyclers face is sourcing enough batteries to keep facilities operating at acceptable capacity utilization rates.
  • Very high costs – collectively, small battery sizes, high collection and logistics costs, and unreliable supply chains increase recycling costs to a point where it’s cheaper to discard used batteries than it would be to recycle them.
  • Substantial exports in e-waste – the collection, refurbishment and resale or recycling of used electronic devices, or e-waste, is big business and when battery powered devices enter the e-waste stream, their used batteries go along for the ride.
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Alpha Stockman 2 years ago Member's comment

Good stuff, when can we read more by you?

Michael Molman 2 years ago Contributor's comment

I have been following the technoligical metals space for a while and figured that one day lithium ion battery recycling could become an enormous industry. But as this article shows it will be a while before this space becomes practical #lithium

Charles Howard 2 years ago Member's comment

I still have a lot of faith in #lithium. Even more I would like to see more by John Petersen.

Bill Johnson 2 years ago Member's comment

Very insightful.