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

The economics of lithium-ion battery recycling will change if EVs become mainstream because recycling automotive battery packs will be cheaper and the logistics simpler. The timing of those changes, however, is almost impossible to predict because of uncertainties arising from second life applications.

Future landscape

While I would be hard-pressed to accurately describe the likely near-term evolution of battery repurposing and recycling, Creation Inn, a UK consulting firm, released a comprehensive report in January 2018 titled, “Circular opportunities in the lithium-ion industry; analysis of the global end-of-life market for lithium-ion batteries.” I was intrigued when I read a summary of Creation Inn’s conclusions in an online article. I was delighted when Creation Inn agreed to send me a courtesy copy of their report. It’s a comprehensive, engaging and thoroughly impressive piece of work; an eye-opener that discussed a variety of used battery market dynamics I didn’t know existed. Frankly, I think anyone who’s contemplating a major investment in a battery recycling venture should consider buying a copy of the report before making a decision.

The first point the report drove home was that many believe used cells in EV battery packs will have significant remaining capacity when the pack is replaced or the EV is taken out of service. The logic is pretty straightforward. EVs are not a difficult duty cycle for batteries because:

  • Daily depth of discharge is shallow because most EVs offer 100 to 300 miles of range while the average owner drives less than 50 miles a day; and
  • Charge and discharge rates are gentle because charging at home takes several hours and urban commuting typically includes significant low-speed segments.

Therefore, the cells in an automotive battery pack should have significant remaining capacity when the pack is taken out of service in a vehicle. While I’ve always assumed that second life users would resist combining old cells with new control systems, cooling systems and housings, it’s undoubtedly a business that end-of-life battery owners will want to pursue to maximize the value of their battery investments.

The second and more important point the report drove home was that lithium-ion battery recycling is not likely to be a business where technology wins. The report identifies seven recyclers in Europe, only one of which is public, three recyclers in North America, none of which are public, and four more recyclers in Asia, none of which are public. It also mentions several companies that are working to develop new hydrometallurgical techniques for processing old batteries. At the end of the day, Creation Inn is not convinced that there is or will be a “best” technical solution or that the best will be significantly better than the “second-best,” the “third-best,” or, for that matter, the “tenth-best. The primary factor that will drive success or failure in the battery recycling business will be controlled over a reliable stream of used batteries that can be used as feedstock.

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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.