In the near-distant future, spent batteries could clutter the landscape. A primary focus of energy storage tech developers has been on engineering more power-dense and lighter weight lithium-ion batteries to power devices like laptops, cell phones, and electric vehicles. But it seems that little planning has gone into the product’s end of life, a circumstance that leaves many wondering how we will manage battery waste.
Adding to the equation, electric vehicle sales are on the rise, with the current US sales rate of 1% expected to reach 54% by 2040. Experts agree that this surge will contribute significantly to an already ominous battery waste problem.
Today, as few as 5% of lithium-ion batteries are recycled, according to recent statistics. Ajay Kochhar, CEO of Canadian battery recycling startup Li-Cycle, told The Guardian that the increase in electric vehicle sales “could leave 11m tons of spent lithium-ion batteries in need of recycling between now and 2030.” It’s a problem that carmakers, materials experts, and entrepreneurs are working to solve.
Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries use an intercalated lithium compound as one electrode material. The electrolyte carries positively charged lithium ions from the anode to the cathode and vice versa through a separator. While lithium is the magic dust that makes these batteries energy dense, it is also widely considered an unstable metal that can release toxic gases and pose certain safety risks. So what happens when a hybrid or electric car’s battery pack is damaged or wears out?
Today, individual cells are harvested from electric vehicle batteries and used to power smaller devices. For example, cells from Panasonic’s 18650 batteries, used in Tesla vehicles, can be reused in power tools and other electronics. Chevrolet explains that it uses old batteries as backup power at its GM data center.
Batteries can also be broken down through smelting. Metals like cobalt and nickel can be recovered fairly simply, but recuperating lithium proves challenging as it ends up in a mixed byproduct. Commercial smelting operations can reclaim lithium from the byproduct with additional processing, but these extra steps contribute significantly to the cost of recovery and can exceed the value of the recuperated metal.
“There still needs to be more development to get to closed-loop recycling where all materials are reclaimed,” Jessica Alsford, head of the Morgan Stanley’s global sustainable research team told The Guardian. “There’s a difference between being able to do something and it making economic sense.”
What suggestions do you have for handling lithium-ion battery waste?