The world must quickly put an end to battery recycling

Europe is slowly catching up, both in battery production and recycling, with carmakers taking the lead in recovering the valuable materials. The IEA predicts that recycling will account for up to 12 percent of the EV industry’s demand for lithium, nickel, copper and cobalt by 2040.

The Volkswagen Group – which includes Audi, Porsche and other brands – is recycling up to 3,600 batteries per year during a pilot phase at its new factory in Salzgitter, northern Germany. Mineral processors are also showing interest in entering the market: Australian minerals company Neometals has partnered with German company SMS group to build an industrial-scale factory for destroying batteries, also located in Germany – an appropriate choice of location, as the country is the European country. largest car manufacturer.

“Our sense of urgency to get recycling going is much greater than many people think,” says Bo Normark, director of industrial strategy at EIT InnoEnergy, an EU-funded accelerator for sustainable innovations. Lithium-ion batteries have a lifespan of more than ten years, so it will take a while for them to accumulate. But long before that – “actually today,” says Normark – there will be a need to recycle leftovers from battery production. These scraps include trimmings and other waste generated during the manufacturing process, or batteries that fail quality testing.

But before battery recycling can be scaled up, the industry must rethink its approach. Current recycling methods are crude and designed to extract only high-quality materials from the cells. Gavin Harper, a research fellow at the University of Birmingham, uses the analogy of the snakes and ladders board game to explain how lithium-ion batteries are currently produced and recycled. A player starts at the bottom of the board with raw materials, moves up the board to produce a battery, and aims to end up at the top of the board with a fully recycled battery. The snakes, which allow a player to slide down several spaces on the board, have different lengths and correspond to different recycling methods.

In a first step, recyclers typically shred the cathode and anode material from used batteries into a powdery mixture called black mass. In the board game analogy, this would be the first time a snake slides down, Harper explains. The black mass can then be processed in two ways to extract the valuable components. One method, called pyrometallurgy, involves melting the black mass in a furnace powered by fossil fuels. It is a relatively cheap method, but a lot of lithium, aluminum, graphite and manganese are lost.

Another method, hydrometallurgy, leaches the metals from the black mass by dissolving it in acids and other solvents. According to Harper, this method would correspond to a shorter snake in the board game, because more material can be recovered: you fall back, but not with as many squares as with pyrometallurgy. However, the process requires a lot of energy and produces toxic gases and wastewater.

“The holy grail for recycling is this idea of ​​direct recycling, which only gets us a little way up the rankings,” Harper says. Simply put, the cathode is separated from the battery cell, regenerated in a chemical process and then placed back into a cell. “It’s certainly something that has been proven to be possible and can work. Techniques are being researched furiously,” says Harper, referring to the ReCell Center, a U.S. research collaboration focused on battery recycling and funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. Similar efforts are underway in Britain and Europe.

While some research institutes, companies and startups are trying to figure out how to best recycle lithium-ion batteries, others are working on cheaper and more sustainable types of batteries. Chinese manufacturers CATL and BYD already produce lithium iron phosphate batteries, which are cheaper, less toxic and cobalt-free. They also bank on sodium-ion batteries – which use abundant sodium instead of relatively rare lithium – to become the next generation of EV batteries.

Baker says we need to stop thinking of recycling as a process of removing precious metals from a battery pack. “The value is not just in the elements, but also in the combination of those elements, how they are designed and put together,” says Baker. In other words, for battery recycling to work properly, we may have to design batteries from scratch.

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