As battery demand grows, recycling needs to capture more of the valuable resources in each cell
Global demand for batteries is surging. Lithium-ion cells are being incorporated into ever-wider areas of consumer and industrial life, but one of the biggest drivers of battery demand is the accelerating transition to electric vehicles (EVs). EV numbers are predicted to rise by 36% per year globally, passing 245 million vehicles by 2030.
The lithium-ion batteries that power a typical EV might contain around 29kg of nickel, 8kg of cobalt and 6kg of lithium. Meanwhile, dumping expired batteries can contaminate the environment with toxic compounds, or cause them to degrade, self-ignite and start fires in landfills. An obvious answer is to recycle batteries for their valuable materials, and create a more circular battery economy.
Source: © Ezequiel Becerra/AFP/Getty Images
Batteries are typically shredded before being processed in a variety of different ways to recover different metals and materials
Spent EV batteries can be refurbished for use in applications where weight or volume-based performance requirements are less critical, such as stationary storage and backup power. Nonetheless, these batteries will eventually need to be recycled. Fraunhofer ISI has estimated that from 2035, automotive batteries will become the largest share of batteries for recycling. ‘The challenge is huge,’ says Christophe Couesnon, head of battery sustainability at Solvay in France. ‘End-of-life batteries from cars will first come as a trickle, but then arrive in huge volumes that will be challenging to deal with.’ Car batteries today are expected to last around 15 years.
‘Transition metals like copper, cobalt and nickel are the highest value components within batteries,’ says Emma Kendrick, a battery researcher at the University of Birmingham, UK. ‘But there are other critical materials within batteries such as lithium and graphite.’ She has assessed Li-ion battery recycling processes in dozens of companies. While almost all lead-acid batteries are recycled, estimates suggest only a small fraction of Li-ion batteries get recycled in countries such as the US, certainly less than 10%. Even China, the world’s largest battery producer, recycles an estimated less than half.
Once a battery reaches its end of life, it must be brought to a recycling facility, discharged for safety and dismantled. What remains is then put through an industrial shredder and mechanically sorted to generate ‘black mass’, which contains lithium, manganese, cobalt and nickel, among other components depending on the battery construction. Mechanical treatment involves crushing, vacuum drying, sieving and milling. Material extraction can then begin. Size, density and magnetic separation may be used to take out components like current collectors, casing materials and separators. What happens next varies.
It’s a bit like making a Victoria sponge cake, then sticking the entire thing through a shredder and hoping to reclaim the jam and cream
Traditionally, battery recycling is not particularly sophisticated, chemically speaking, Kendrick explains. ‘Often you stick it in the shredder, and then you try and sort it out later.’ With large plants required for economic viability, it can be difficult for innovative startups to get established, she adds, although incentives are on the way.
One major regulatory push for recycling is the EU’s ‘digital passport’ requirement for batteries, which will include environmental data, such as carbon footprint. It will also require half of a battery’s mass to be recycled, rising to 70% for Li-ion batteries from 2040, along with some specific requirements for metals. The recycle rate for lithium, for example, will go from 35% to 75% between 2026 and 2030, creating a substantial obligation for manufacturers. In the US, the Inflation Reduction Act offers financial rewards for domestic battery material production. Recycling offers an attractive prospect in countries where new mining will likely face opposition on environmental grounds.
Many recyclers, including giants like Umicore, begin with a pyrometallurgical step, whereby battery materials are smelted above 1200°C. Umicore’s process produces metal alloys containing cobalt, nickel, lithium and copper. The company then uses a hydrometallurgical process to separate and recover the metals separately, claiming recovered yields of over 95% for cobalt, copper and nickel from a range of battery compositions. These can then be remanufactured into cathode materials.
Hydrometallurgy relies on strong acids such as sulfuric or hydrochloric acid in tandem with powerful redox reagents such as hydrogen peroxide. ‘You can also use a hydrometallurgical route to extract the components directly, without going through the pyrometallurgical stage,’ says Kendrick. One issue with placing batteries into a furnace is the energy consumption, but also that lithium is partially lost at high temperatures, rather than captured. On the other hand, more complex hydrometallurgical methods often require a more complex (and expensive) mix of potentially hazardous reagents.
In Finland, Fortum opened a mechanical shredding plant in 2021, and has since built a new pilot-scale hydrometallurgical facility to recycle electric car batteries. Once completed, it will be among the largest in Europe and will recover over 95% of the valuable metals including lithium, cobalt, manganese and nickel from black mass, according to the company. In March, Fortum began an operation in Germany. Also in Scandinavia is Hydrovolt, a joint venture between battery company Northvolt, and energy and aluminium provider Hydro. Hydrovolt opened Europe’s largest EV battery recycling plant in Norway, capable of processing 12,000 tons of battery packs each year. It says it will isolate some 95% of battery materials, such as copper, aluminium and black mass.
Source: © Detlef W Schmalow/BASF
BASF is aiming to optimise existing hydrometallurgical processe to allow better recovery of lithium alongside other valuable metals
BASF is building a commercial scale black mass production plant in Schwarzheide with an annual processing capacity of 15,000 tons of Li-ion batteries from electric cars. It is scheduled to begin operations in 2025. The company is also building a prototype recycling plant in Schwarzheide to test and refine its hydrometallurgical technology for recovering lithium, nickel, cobalt and manganese from black mass. ‘Our refining process is based on known technologies from the mining industry as they are also used by other recycling companies,’ according to a BASF spokesperson. ‘We optimise these processes end-to-end to make them suited for recycling batteries into battery grade metals.’ To recover lithium, BASF will lean on a process from Tenova Advanced Technologies, with proprietary solvent extraction and lithium electrolysis.
Solvay is also developing new ways to recover lithium, collaborating with hazardous waste recycler Veolia. Today, hydrometallurgical extraction normally first removes cobalt, then nickel and finally lithium, by which time much of the lithium has been lost. ‘We have a [laboratory scale] process that can bring a step-change to extracting lithium,’ says Couesnon.
Where lithium is currently extracted at all, it is mostly as lithium carbonate, he notes. Battery makers must then use more water, energy and reagents to obtain lithium hydroxide for batteries. ‘Our process can go directly from the lithium content inside the battery to lithium hydroxide,’ says Couesnon. Today, this battery ingredient is not in demand in Europe, since there is so little battery manufacturing, ‘but in a couple of years there’s going to be huge demand,’ says Couesnon.
A lot of black mass processes will produce individual metal salts, but why extract these to put them back together in cathode materials?
Demand creates opportunities, says Laura Lander, a battery engineer at King’s College London, UK. ‘There’s a trend for a lot of recycling startups in Europe, as recycled material becomes more valuable.’ One example is Cylib, founded in 2022 on the back of processes developed at RWTH Aachen University, Germany. From the start, the company aimed to recycle as much of battery ingredients as possible using combinations of thermal, mechanical and metallurgical steps.
‘Our process extracts plastics, copper and aluminium early, then we perform water-based lithium and graphite extractions,’ says Gideon Schwich, a cofounder of Cylib. ‘This lowers the mass significantly, so we need less effort and less chemicals to extract further elements.’ For now, the startup recycles one EV battery per day, equivalent to 500–800kg, but it expects to start a production line capable of recycling thousands of tonnes per day in early 2026, likely in Germany. Graphite production, says Lander, is quite polluting, so recovering graphite will have a positive environmental impact and will likely be incentivised by European regulators.
With more battery material becoming available to recycle, new processes are being explored. One potential strategy is called direct recycling: instead of destroying and then recovering metals, this seeks to extract materials that could be repaired or remanufactured for use in new batteries. ‘A lot of research is going into ways to directly take a battery apart and separate out the cathode and the anode and recover the materials as they are, without mixing them all together,’ says Jaqueline Edge, mechanical engineer at Imperial College London, UK. ‘In recycling, if you mix the stream, then you don’t recover the valuable components.’
RecycLiCo Battery Materials in Canada aims to directly recover battery-ready materials. It has built a demonstration facility in Vancouver that can process around 800kg of Li-ion battery waste material each day. ‘We worked with different black mass and cathode chemistries, such as LCO [lithium cobalt oxide], NMC [nickel manganese cobalt], NCA [nickel cobalt aluminium] and even now LFP [lithium iron phosphate],’ says chief executive Zarko Meseldzija. He adds that the demo plant has achieved over 99% extraction of lithium, nickel, manganese and cobalt using its hydrometallurgical process.
Source: © RecycLiCo Battery Materials
RecycLiCo aims to use an advance hydrometallurgical process to recover materials in a form that can be directly processed into new battery components
The firm says its process is simpler and cheaper than its competitors, which generate less valuable products. Crucially, it generates high-purity lithium carbonate or hydroxide and cathode precursor materials, rather than constituent metals. ‘There is an awful lot of crushing of batteries and black mass production, but we are focusing on the hydrometallurgical side at scale,’ says Meseldzija. ‘A lot of black mass processes will produce individual metal salts, but why extract these to put them back together in cathode materials? We go direct to cathode precursors and lithium hydroxide.’
One notable issue for recyclers is that battery compositions are evolving, with less cobalt in EV batteries and some new elements such as silicon in anodes. Also, the prices of battery metals can fluctuate wildly, with cobalt peaking around $80,000/tonne in early 2022, then dipping below $35,000 in March 2023. Lithium carbonate cost around $8000/tonne at the start of 2021, rising to about $58,000 in November 2022, before falling back to around $20,000 by mid-April 2023. This can make it difficult for recyclers to pin down their returns when constructing facilities.
Everybody’s talking about electric vehicles and recycling, but there is a significant amount of material lost in the early stages of battery production
For now, the major source of battery scrap is battery production itself. Benchmark has forecast that in 2025 production scrap will account for 78% of the pool of recyclable materials from batteries, with end-of-life scrap only overtaking this in the mid-2030s. ‘Everybody’s talking about electric vehicles and recycling, but there is a significant amount of material lost in the early stages of battery production,’ says Meseldzija. What is more, it makes sense for battery manufacturers to recover this scrap, no matter how much the price of individual metals see-saw. Cylib too sees its initial production focus on recycling scrap from battery production factories in Europe. ‘There are so many gigafactories being set up right now and their production scrap has to be recycled,’ says Schwich. ‘That’s a huge opportunity.’
Nonetheless, it would be wrong to suggest that Europe or North America are leading the way in battery recycling. In terms of volume, China is unsurpassed, providing more than half of estimated global battery recycling capacity of around 200,000 tonnes per year. The battery maker CATL, for example, is about to build a new 24 billion yuan (£2.8 billion) recycling facility to recover battery waste. GEM, a Chinese recycling firm, aims to process 200,000 tonnes a year by 2025, a 20-fold rise in volume from 2021 levels.
Other countries are also keen to establish robust local supply chains. In South Korea, two battery recyclers made strong stock market debuts, according to the Financial Times. ‘Battery recycling is becoming more important in terms of energy security as battery makers are keen to reduce their dependence on China in securing key materials,’ an analyst told the newspaper. Indian battery recycler Attero plans to expand globally over the next five years with a $1 billion investment to set up facilities in Europe, the US and Indonesia.
Building in circularity
But there is room to step up a gear in recycling processes. ‘The electrolytes, the solvents and the plastics all disappear in current processes and are much harder to recover, but the electrolyte for example is valuable and can contain high concentrations of lithium,’ says Edge. One issue is that batteries are simply not designed for recycling, with variations in pack designs and cathode composition, while glues and binders make automated disassembly more difficult. ‘Only in very recently is thinking going into the design of batteries for disassembly and recycling,’ says Lander.
‘There’s a need for redesign, to start thinking about what happens these batteries at the end of life and how we can more easily disassemble them and reclaim pure material waste streams,’ says Kendrick. ‘Because right now, we put all this effort into creating highly engineered cells and then stick them in a shredder.’ China is arguably at an advantage in facing this challenge. Recycling companies are often wholly owned subsidiaries of the automotive companies, says Edge, which allows them to collaborate more on pack design.
Kendrick said battery recycling now is ‘a bit like making a Victoria sponge cake, then sticking the entire thing through a shredder and hoping to reclaim the jam and cream’. The future of battery recycling is bound to become more sophisticated, driven by economic incentives to obtain valuable materials and a regulatory push to recover strategically important battery ingredients.
Anthony KingI am a freelance science journalist based in Dublin, Ireland. I cover a variety of topics in chemical and biological sciences, as well as science policy, health and innovation.
Who is the largest battery recycler? ›
The world's largest battery recycler is opening its first US li-ion recycling factory. Battery recycling giant Ecobat is building its first lithium-ion battery recycling facility in North America – its third li-ion battery recycling facility globally.Is battery recycling business profitable? ›
Lithium-ion battery recycling business recently, with the increase in the use of Electronic and Electrical equipment, has proven to be very lucrative, with the global recycling market growing at a Compound Annual Growth Rate of 19.6 per cent with the expected estimate of 22.8 billion dollar by 2030.Is battery recycling really good for the environment? ›
1) Improperly disposed batteries contribute to water and air pollution. When depleted batteries are tossed into the trash, they end up in landfills where they decay and leak. As batteries corrode, their chemicals soak into soil and contaminate groundwater and surface water.Who are battery recyclers of America competitors? ›
Alternatives and possible competitors to Battery Recyclers of America may include Hensel Recycling , JPS International , and Causey Machine Works .What are the top companies in battery recycling? ›
Umicore, Ecobat, LLC, Glencore plc, Li-Cycle Corporation, American Battery Technology Company (ABTC), East Penn Manufacturing, RecycLiCo Battery Materials Inc., Ganfeng Lithium Group Co., Ltd, Exide Industries Limited, and EnerSys, among others, are the key players in global market for battery recycling.What is the largest lithium-ion battery recycler in North America? ›
COVINGTON, Ga., March 30, 2023 /PRNewswire/ -- Ascend Elements celebrated the grand opening of its first commercial-scale lithium-ion battery recycling facility this week. Located in Covington, Georgia, the $50 million Base 1 facility is North America's largest electric vehicle battery recycling facility.Which recycling is most profitable? ›
- Scrap metal.
- Bottles and cans.
- EV batteries.
- Printer ink cartridges.
- Electronic items.
- Cardboard boxes.
DISADVANTAGES OF BATTERY RECYCLING –
Recycling is not a cost effective method as huge investment is required in setting up of industries. Recycling does not guarantee good quality products. The breakdown of batteries in the recycling process causes emission of toxins that are harmful and thus polluting the environment.
Lithium-ion batteries contain metals such as cobalt, nickel, and manganese, which are toxic and can contaminate water supplies and ecosystems if they leach out of landfills.How effective is lithium ion battery recycling? ›
How much of a lithium ion battery can be recycled? On average, about 50% of a lithium-ion battery can be recycled in an effective way. Unfortunately, this means that a considerable amount of the materials in it have to be safely stored in a permanent way.
How many batteries end up in landfills? ›
It is estimated that 3 billion batteries are thrown away each year by Americans, a population of 323 million people.Who is the market leader in battery technology? ›
CATL is the leading brand in EV battery manufacturing, securing 34% of the market share. Based in China, CATL manufacturers solid-state batteries and lithium-ion batteries for companies including BMW, Toyota, and Honda, to name a few. CATL also supplies Tesla with EV batteries for its Shanghai-based assembly line.Who is the ex Tesla employee battery recycling company? ›
Redwood Materials was founded in 2017 by Jeffrey "JB" Straubel, Tesla's former chief technology officer. It now has more than 300 employees who recycle used batteries and has supply contracts with Ford and with Panasonic, which makes batteries for Tesla.Who has the biggest battery factory? ›
- Farasis Energy (Gan Zhou) Co., Ltd. Market share as of July 2022: NA (1% in 2021) ...
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- Svolt Energy Technology Co., Ltd. ...
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- Samsung SDI Co., Ltd.
In late 2021, QuantumScape illustrated that its forever battery performed in 4-layer formats up to 800 charging cycles. A quarter later, the company scaled successful results to 10-layer batteries up to 800 cycles.What is the US battery recycling rate? ›
The researchers said only about 5% of used lithium-ion batteries are currently recycled in the United States today.How big is the battery recycling industry? ›
|Market Size Value in||USD 15.81 billion in 2022|
|Market Size Value by||USD 36 Billion by 2028|
|Growth rate||CAGR of 13.4% from 2022 to 2028|
Thacker Pass Lithium Mine.
|Thacker Pass Lithium|
If the claimed figure is accurate, that would make the deposit the second-largest known lithium reserve in the world after Chile, which holds 9.2 million metric tons of the metal, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.Where does the US get most of its lithium for batteries? ›
The US gets most of its lithium-ion batteries from China, and also sources large volumes from South Korea and Japan. But there is a huge, unregulated market for battery packs in the US, which poses a challenge to regulators and a threat to consumers.
What state is the best at recycling? ›
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Germany. Germany has held the highest recycling rate in the world since 2016, with 56.1% of all waste being recycled in the country.Who is the best at recycling in the world? ›
- The best recycling countries include Germany, Austria, South Korea, and Wales. ...
- Germany has achieved the top country on the list with strict government rules. ...
- As a country the public is also made very aware and is passionate about the amount of waste sent to landfills.
Lithium mining does have an environmental impact, but it is no worse than oil drilling. This is especially true when you consider the carbon emissions produced from petroleum products during their usage, as compared to lithium-ion batteries that have little to no GHG emissions during their use.Why lithium batteries Cannot be recycled? ›
But Li batteries are made up of lots of different parts that could explode if they're not disassembled carefully. And even when Li batteries are broken down this way, the products aren't easy to reuse.Why shouldn't lithium batteries be recycled? ›
Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries and devices containing these batteries should not go in household garbage or recycling bins. They can cause fires during transport or at landfills and recyclers. Instead, Li-ion batteries should be taken to separate recycling or household hazardous waste collection points .Are batteries infinitely recyclable? ›
A huge benefit is that the raw materials used in battery production are nearly infinitely recyclable. Unfortunately, if they are laying around landfills they completely go to waste.What happens to lithium batteries in landfills? ›
When we add old batteries and products embedded with lithium-ion batteries to landfills, they can leach toxic, corrosive chemicals such as mercury, cadmium, lead and nickel into the soil and water table, which endangers the environment and human health. These chemicals are extremely difficult and expensive to clean up.Why shouldn't you put batteries in the bin? ›
Batteries that are thrown into ordinary bins, household waste or with other recycling are extremely dangerous as they can explode and cause fires.How many tons of ore does it take to make a lithium battery? ›
To manufacture each EV battery, you must process 25,000 pounds of brine for the lithium 30,000 pounds of ore for the cobalt 5,000 pounds of ore for the nickel, 25,000 pounds of ore for copper Diging up 500,000 pounds of the earth's crust For just - one - battery.
What is the truth about lithium mining? ›
Lithium mining is, like all mining, environmentally and socially harmful. More than half the current lithium production, which is very water intensive, takes place in regions blighted by water shortages that are likely to get worse due to global heating.Why are Tesla's bad for the environment? ›
Most importantly, the production of EV batteries generates far more emissions than the production process for ICE vehicles. Producing the battery alone for a Tesla generates between 5,291 and 35,273 pounds of CO2 emissions, which is up to three times higher than the emissions to manufacture a gas-powered car.Can lithium be 100% recycled? ›
Lithium-ion batteries are 95% recyclable
In fact, the metals used in lithium-ion applications, such as lithium, nickel, and cobalt, hold their value beyond the life of the battery, allowing recycling facilities to reclaim these materials.
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Battery metals do not degrade when recycled, so they can be reused indefinitely.What happens to old batteries from electric cars? ›
Yes, when EV batteries reach the end of their working life, they will be recycled. In the US, when the typical 8- to 10-year battery warranty has expired, most EV providers can reuse the batteries for a second or third time.Can Tesla batteries be recycled? ›
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Earth has approximately 88 million tonnes of lithium, but only one-quarter is economically viable to mine as reserves. The average lithium mine takes at least a few years to get up and running, which presents problems.What battery company is Bill Gates investing in? ›
Form Energy Inc., an energy-storage company backed by Bill Gates's Breakthrough Energy Ventures, is planning a $760 million factory in West Virginia, the latest plant announced in the aftermath of President Joe Biden's landmark climate law.Who is the world leader in battery recycling? ›
|Characteristic||Capacity in thousand metric tons|
What battery will replace lithium ion? ›
Lithium-sulfur batteries are believed to be more efficient than lithium-ion batteries, which could increase the range and storage capacity of electric vehicles. Additionally, sulfur is affordable and abundant, which could mean lower cost.Who are the key players in battery recycling? ›
American Battery Technology Company (US), ACCUREC Recycling GmbH (Germany), Cirba Solutions (US), Contemporary Amperex Technology Co., Limited (China), Ecobat (US), Fortum (Finland), GEM Co., Ltd. (China), Glencore (Switzerland), Li-Cycle Corp. (Canada), Neometals Ltd. (Australia), Redwood Materials Inc.Who does Tesla buy lithium off? ›
Tesla is reportedly considering buying Brazil-based lithium miner Sigma Lithium, which is currently valued at $3 billion. With the rapidly rising costs of key minerals for battery production, Tesla has been considering venturing into the mining world.Who owns patent to Tesla battery? ›
But we now can confirm that their technology is owned by Tesla. One of the SiILion duo's most important patents, called “Large-format Battery Anodes Comprising Silicon Particles,” is now listed as Tesla's: Tesla is listed as the “applicant” for the patent while Evans and Molina Piper are listed as inventors.What company is behind the 1 million mile battery? ›
It is actually far less surprising that CATL and BYD have debuted million-mile batteries because they are using LFP, which typically has a far longer life than NMC.Which company has the most advanced battery technology? ›
Toyota Motor is considered the leader in solid-state battery patents. Currently, EVs with solid-state batteries are not commercially available but are expected to be used in EVs from 2025.Who is second biggest battery EV player in US? ›
CATL provides lithium-ion batteries to Tesla, Peugeot, Hyundai, Honda, BMW, Toyota, Volkswagen, and Volvo. Despite facing strict scrutiny after EV battery-fire recalls in the United States, LG Energy Solution remains the second-biggest battery manufacturer.Who is the largest electronics recycler? ›
Founded by John Shegerian, ERI is the world's largest privately held recycler of electronics, recycling more than 275 million pounds of e-waste annually.Who is the largest recycler in the US? ›
1. Waste Management. As the largest provider of waste and recycling services in the USA, Waste Management (WM) handles the needs of over 21 million commercial, residential, and industrial customers each year.Who is the biggest lithium extractor? ›
The Largest Lithium Miners
The world's largest lithium producer, Albemarle Corporation, operates at the Chilean resource of Salar de Atacama in partnership with the second biggest producer, Sociedad Química y Minera de Chile (SQM).
Who is the world leader in recycling? ›
For example, Germany is the country that has the highest recycling rate in the world. Even though there are different ways to calculate the total recycling rate, Germany appears to recycle about 56 percent of all of the waste it produces.What is the largest e-waste company in the US? ›
ERI is the largest fully integrated Electronics & IT Asset Disposition (ITAD) provider and cybersecurity-focused hardware destruction company in the United States.Who has the most successful recycling program in the world? ›
Germany has the highest recycling rate in the world. The nation recycles an impressive 66.1% of its waste.Who is making the million mile battery? ›
A team of researchers, led by Professor Jeff Dahn at Dalhousie University, have developed and demonstrated batteries that can last four million miles (almost six million km).What is the most money made from recycling? ›
Scrap Metal. The final and most profitable material on our “best items to recycle for money” list is scrap metal.What is North America's largest recycler? ›
Nucor is also North America's largest recycler, processing approximately 23 million tons of ferrous scrap annually to produce new steel that is 100% recyclable at the end of its useful life.What recycling pays the most? ›
- Scrap Metal. One of the most profitable materials to recycle is scrap metal. ...
- Bottles and Cans. Bottles and cans are the most common things to recycle. ...
- Ink Cartridges. ...
- Quirky Recyclables.
Dr. John Burba, the Godfather of Lithium, created an innovative technology known as Direct Lithium Extraction that accomplishes both the supply and environmental concerns of the lithium industry.What's the best lithium stock to buy? ›
|Company Name||Symbol||YTD Return|
|Sigma Lithium Corp.||SGML||35.28%|
|Lucid Group Inc.||LCID||18.64%|