March 1, 2021
Much has been said and written about lithium-ion (li-ion) batteries and their recycling, to the point of taking this industrial and technical topic into the political and public arena. In this article we take a step back to look at what we think are the four key challenges of recycling li-ion batteries.
There are many types of li-ion batteries, all with clunky acronyms — NCA, LCO, NMC, etc. — and all containing lithium and critical metals like cobalt or nickel. These resources are in limited supply, and therefore need to be carefully researched, understood and managed.
Indeed, unlike oil, gas or uranium, cobalt and nickel are not used up, nor do they disappear when activated. Batteries are sealed and encapsulated objects; their life cycle starts and ends with the exact same quantity of metals.
“Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed”, to quote the father of modern chemistry, Antoine Lavoisier. So, while oil turns into toxic fumes what millions of years of physiochemical phenomena took to create, the battery’s contents recombine internally until they no longer respond to the chemical reactions within the battery.
This places different constraints on fossil fuel and battery reserves. The latter’s reserves are finite and must be used sparingly, while fossil-fuel flows must be controlled and losses limited as these pollute the environment and possibly have to be compensated for through additional extraction.
While IFP Energies nouvelles (IFPEN1) is optimistic that there will be enough lithium and cobalt to cope with the electrification of transportation — even on a global scale — this can only be achieved through sensible and far-sighted management of these scarce reserves. Battery recycling and second life (or reuse) have become a vital part of optimising lithium and rare metal reserves.
Understanding the technical challenges requires some context.
Recycling technologies and solutions are based on over 300 scientific papers, a third of which were published in 2018.2 This hotbed of research is yielding very encouraging results, as the technologies under review — especially hydrometallurgy methods — can allow recycling rates to be met.
For example, in 20 research projects 100% of lithium was recovered, in 80 over 90% of lithium was recovered, and in 86 over 90% of cobalt was retrieved. In France, the technologies used by the recycling company SNAM already recovers over 70% of the entire battery.
The technology is there, and yet in the public mind battery recycling is a bridge too far — and therefore discredited. This is where context comes in: lithium-ion recycling is less than 20 years old, which is still very young for this kind of industry. The first li-ion battery was commercialised by Sony in 1991, whereas the first scientific paper to even mention the concept of li-ion recycling goes back to the early 2000s. To put this into perspective, the recycling of lead-acid car batteries — 97% effective — is over 100 years old.
We can therefore reasonably expect much more — and fast-tracked — progress in li‑ion battery recycling.
Another simple reason why li-ion battery recycling is still perceived as ineffective and attracts little investment from industry and governments? There is little money to be made and few jobs to be created when recycling volumes are so low.
But the paradigm is changing as new mobility trends are spurred by new and different types of electric vehicles (including light EVs), and by the potential volumes of batteries that will need to be recycled in the future.
Boston Consulting Group predicts that EVs will dominate sales in the private consumer market to make up 50% of sales from 2030. In other words, volumes are set to soar, reaching economies of scale to meet the needs of the energy transition.
On-board EV batteries are between 6 kWh (for light EVs like the Renault Twizy which has a good 100-km range) and nearly 100 kWh for top-of-the-range Tesla (weighing in at 2.5 tonnes for a range of up to 700 km). In comparison, your mobile phone has a battery of 10 Wh which is 10,000 times less powerful.
A complete about-face in recycling can be expected, with the sharp rise in EV sales with each EV battery representing several thousand consumer electronic batteries. The European Commission’s estimate of li-ion batteries to be recycled by 2035 in Europe is 700,000 tonnes3. Circular Energy Storage gives a global figure of 1.2 million by 2030. And according to GreenTechMedia 100,000 tonnes of batteries were recycled in 2019, primarily in China.
To give a clearer idea, every GWh manufactured annually translates into 4,000 tonnes of batteries to be recycled 10 years later.
The responsible management of global reserves combined with pure and simple business-minded thinking demands more interest and investment in recycling.
Yet this is not the case. Resources, economic value and jobs are going to China. We are not doing our energy independence any favours by choosing to send our complex waste to be recycled on the other side of the planet, GreenTechMedia goes on to explain. Thus our recycling industry is lagging far behind its Asian counterparts.
The coronavirus has highlighted the shortcomings in our overly-specialised model — the services industry in the west, social and environmental dumping (below-market-value prices and lax environmental rules) elsewhere — and has brought recycling into sharp focus.
The waste we send to China for recycling generates benefits that are intellectual (70% of the scientific papers mentioned earlier are published by Chinese and Korean universities), social (thousands of people are employed by this industry in Asia) and economic, as we buy back the salvage to meet the same needs.
This is how the Chinese heavyweight GEM became the leading supplier of cathode material for NCA, LCO, NMC and other types of batteries, having started as a recycler.
The market will be worth between €0.7 and €1.4 billion by 2030 a report by German consultancy Roland Berger estimates, summarising Asia’s hegemony in battery recycling as a rhetorical question: “is it also an opportunity for Europe?” It concludes by calling for a European framework to govern battery recycling and to accelerate the implementation of the European Batteries Directive. This regulation, which puts tough restrictions on carbon footprints and is widely considered as a carbon tax within Europe’s borders, is an effective means of limiting social and environmental dumping (as is the case in bicycle manufacturing).
These four challenges are very much embedded in the current reality. Lockdowns and restrictions are facing us with the reality of our consumer habits, compelling us to pick up the pace of the energy transition and reshore industry. The battery, especially if governed by a strict legislative framework, can serve as a beacon to light the way forward.
Europe has the advantage of top universities and leading industries, like the Belgian recycling giant Umicore, and companies like Veolia, Recupyl and SNAM (which is developing hydrometallurgical techniques through key partnerships) in France, Aurubis in Germany, and Boliden in Sweden.
Other than making good business sense, harnessing these assets to optimise our shared resources is critical to our shift to cleaner energy.
1 IFP Energies nouvelles
2 European Commission, Commission staff working document: impact assessment report, 10 December 2020.