As energy storage technology has continued to advance, the applications for the use of batteries simultaneously grow. Improved efficiency in energy storage has translated to smaller batteries packing the same powerful punch as behemoths of old.
Moder-day batteries are becoming particularly valuable as a tool for moving towards green energy solutions. Batteries are now powering everything from electric vehicles to sustainable power grids.
However, while batteries provide an incredible opportunity for capturing and storing green energy, there are also increasing concerns about the sustainability of manufacturing batteries. Current manufacturing processes require the use of a complex array of materials, many of which are heavy metals and precious minerals with limited global availability. This has contributed to an increase in mining, often impacting local environments negatively.
Lithium extraction alone has led to an increasing concern about its ongoing effects on the environment. Often, the process of extracting lithium leads to water shortages and toxic overflow into the nearby soil.
Beyond the process of mining materials necessary for batteries, there is an increasing concern about the proper disposal of batteries. When batteries are thrown into landfills, they can further contribute to the toxic contamination of soil and watersheds. Not only that, but in some cases, these batteries can lead to dangerous landfill fires.
It is for this reason that many are turning to large-scale battery recycling as the solution for creating a more sustainable energy future. However, battery recycling is also plagued with a unique set of challenges that are currently limiting the number of materials repurposed.
To better understand the future of large-scale battery recycling and how to resolve the challenges this industry is facing, let’s begin with a look at current trends.
An Increasing Demand for Batteries
Batteries have long played an important role in the energy storage sector. However, as the technology for rechargeable batteries has improved, that demand has only grown. Today, lithium-ion batteries, in particular, are poised to assist in the global movement away from fossil fuels and toward sustainable energy solutions.
However, as a more sustainable energy grid is built, questions remain about how environmentally friendly the components of these grids actually are.
Along with large-scale energy grid storage, the increase in battery demand is being driven by the explosive growth of the electric vehicle market. With countries around the globe committing to the transition toward electric vehicle adoption, landfills are facing an increased risk of becoming overrun with spent lithium-ion batteries. In fact, industry analysts have predicted that by 2030, the worldwide amount of lithium-ion battery waste could hit 2 million metric tons per year.
The demand for batteries does not look to slow down anytime soon, which is why many government regulating bodies and environmental activists are turning their focus to improving large-scale battery recycling.
Present-Day Battery Recycling Habits
The good news is that batteries can be recycled, and much of the material found in batteries can be processed and cleaned. From here, these materials can be repurposed into future batteries or other products.
However, currently, battery recycling habits are limited, particularly in relation to lithium-ion batteries. Recent data indicates that in the European Union and the U.S., less than 5% of lithium-ion batteries are recycled. Faring worse is the Australian market, where only 2-3% of lithium-ion batteries are collected and sent for recycling.
If batteries can be recycled and the valuable materials within batteries extracted, what is causing this lag in the adoption of recycling? This is in part due to the incredible complexities and challenges that face the recycling landscape. Unlike simple plastics or papers, batteries require complicated processes in order to safely transport, extract, and process materials.
To understand this further, it is imperative to recognize the unique challenges facing battery recycling.
A Challenging Landscape for Battery Recycling
When it comes to recycling batteries, historically, there has been a large amount of success seen in relation to recycling lead-acid batteries. From a lead-acid battery, 100% of the lead from within the battery can be recycled and reused. This creates a high level of profitability for recycling lead-acid batteries.
However, current trends are moving away from the use of lead-acid batteries to lithium-ion batteries due to the superior technology of lithium-ion batteries. Lithium-ion batteries offer greater efficiency, longer lifespans, and higher power density. In fact, lithium-ion batteries can achieve a power density of 125-600+ Wh/L versus 50-90 Wh/L for lead acid batteries. This means to achieve the same power, lead acid batteries will take up far more space and weigh more. This is one of the reasons that lithium-ion batteries are seeing such a widescale use in the electric vehicle, mobile devices, and small electronic markets.
Much of the challenges faced in large-scale battery recycling, therefore, revolve around the complexities of recycling lithium-ion.
In a recent interview with Manufacturing, Zachary Baum, an expert in lithium-ion recycling plants working for Information Technology and Service CAS, explains three key issues facing the battery landscaping environment.
- Safe transportation to and from facilities
- The ability to maximize the economic value of the recycled materials
- The complexities in the design variability of batteries
While each of these issues is a key concern, the third issue relating to the complex and varied designs of lithium batteries is perhaps one of the largest hurdles for recycling facilities to overcome.
While all lithium-ion batteries utilize the same basic technology, they vary in their exact chemistry and makeup. Some lithium-ion batteries implement lithium cobalt oxide, some lithium nickel manganese cobalt oxide, and other lithium nickel cobalt aluminum oxide. Additionally, the exact proportion of each component is not constant, varying from manufacturer to manufacturer.
This leads to incredible challenges for recycling facilities. Batteries must be sorted and separated by composition, which in turn raises costs and limits the speed at which recycling can occur.
Not only does the composition of the minerals used within lithium-ion batteries dramatically differ from battery to battery, but the actual structure of these batteries is also not standardized. This means that disassembly cannot follow a systemized process. It also means that much of the recycling process is still manual, requiring the tedious labor of human workers.
Large battery packs can also include additional components depending on their use. In the application of electric vehicles, for example, the battery pack might include safety devices and sensors. These, too, must be disassembled safely and in a manner that allows for the clean processing of all materials.
Growing Research into Recycling Technology
While there is no doubt that large-scale battery recycling is facing numerous challenges, particularly as the industry sees a rise in the use of lithium-ion batteries, there is hope on the horizon. As the global fervor around sustainability increases, researchers are shifting their focus to improving recycling technology.
For example, in 2019, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) launched the first DOE lithium-ion battery recycling R&D center, the Recell Center. The ReCell center is focused on making lithium-ion battery recycling more profitable and aims to help reduce the countries’ dependency on foreign sources of battery materials.
Millions of dollars have been invested into the ReCell center, where researchers from industry, academia, and national laboratories all collaborate together to help increase the efficiencies of battery recycling.
The DOE has also launched the Lithium-Ion Battery Recycling Prize. According to the DOE, the goal of this $5 million prize is to focus “on identifying innovative solutions for collecting, sorting, storing, and transporting spent and discarded lithium-ion batteries — from electric vehicle (EV), consumer electronics, industrial, and stationary applications — for eventual recycling and materials recovery.”
A Multi-Faceted Recycling Strategy
At the same time as funding is being poured into improved battery recycling technology, many recycling advocates are also looking toward a multi-faceted strategy to help mitigate the waste produced by an increasing reliance upon batteries.
One example of this is found in the repurposing or cascade utilization of electric vehicle batteries. The goal of this strategy is to take a battery pack that has fallen beneath 80% of its original nominal capacity and repurposes it for use in lower-powered applications or in a reconfiguration for grid energy storage. This concept is demonstrated in the figure below.
Repurposing is just one of the many creative solutions being explored as the recycling industry looks for innovative methods for increasing the long-term use of existing batteries.
The Future of Solving Large-Scale Battery Recycling Challenges
As the production of electric vehicles ramps up and as new energy storage demands increase, the future must involve a renewed focus on overcoming the current challenges facing large-scale battery recycling.
In the published paper “Current Challenges in Efficient Lithium-Ion Batteries’ Recycling: A Perspective,” researchers propose three key areas of improvement that will help contribute to a more promising future of large-scale battery recycling.
First, the paper proposes that new recycling technologies must be developed that focus on increasing the value of recycled materials. Paired with this focus is a recommendation that new batteries should be designed and manufactured in such a way that they are easier to recycle. For example, through the standardization of cell construction, many of the issues facing the battery recycling industry could be more easily overcome.
Secondly, the paper points out the necessity of governmental policy and funding. While the U.S. and other global leaders are beginning to dedicate funding toward improved recycling technology, there is a call for further focus to be placed on this critical sustainability measure.
Finally, economic and ecological considerations must be evaluated. It is necessary to find ways to improve the economic efficiency of recycling, including a reduction in transportation costs and mitigation of the negative impacts of primary material extraction on the planet.
In the U.S., these focuses have recently been backed by an incredible increase in funding. A huge portion of this funding is due to the Bipartisan Infrascturue Law, with the DOE heading up the implementation of $335 million in investments toward lithium-ion battery recycling programs.
Contribute to a Sustainable Future: Sign Up for Battery Recycling
As the global demand for batteries continues to increase, businesses can do their part in contributing to a more sustainable future by signing up for battery recycling. Though there are many unique challenges facing large-scale battery recycling, technology is marching forward with new innovations paving the way for improved recycling practices.
If your company is interested in learning more about how you can take part in large-scale battery recycling, our team is here to help. At Battery Recyclers of America, we offer convenient pickup services that are available as soon as the next day. Our goal is to handle all of the hard work for you, allowing you to efficiently and safely recycle batteries of almost any type.
Additionally, we use EPA-approved facilities to make sure you’re always compliant with state and federal laws and regulations. And we offer competitive pricing, helping you turn your batteries into an additional revenue stream.
As the battery recycling industry continues to push forward, we will be here to help connect you with the latest in recycling solutions. Our goal is to contribute to a more sustainable future in which batteries can be efficiently, safely, and profitably recycled and repurposed.
To learn more, feel free to fill out our online form or give our team a call at 866-399-4322. We look forward to becoming your trusted partner for battery recycling.