Saturday read: Battery recycling and material uncertainty


From pv magazine 08/2021

Lithium-ion batteries have been tapped to steer transportation and energy storage away from the worsening climate crisis. Ahead of the looming boom in battery manufacturing, experts say industry players and governments have a chance to shape a robust circular economy for a key climate technology. It’s still early, but the path isn’t straightforward.

Ridding the road of fossil-fuel transport is likely to require hundreds of millions of electric vehicles (EVs) powered by batteries. Governments and companies are increasingly looking to fulfil that material demand with sustainably sourced minerals. Yet, while recycling and reuse have long been boosted in top cathode producers like China and South Korea, high-demand markets in the European Union and North America have yet to see a circular economy metabolise on their soil.

Circular plans

The U.S. federal government plans to build out domestic recycling through research funding and battery manufacturing; and California has begun high-level discussions on rules. Within the next year, the European Commission may finalise a new battery directive that would become the first law of its kind to establish targets for a technology from raw materials to disposal.

“We have a strategic technology that most countries are betting on to decarbonise energy and transport, and there’s an industrial opportunity here, of course. And what the EU wants to do is create a level playing field in terms of sustainability with incumbent players,” says Alex Keynes, clean vehicles manager at Transport and Environment, a Europe-wide campaign nonprofit.

Businesses are joining the environmentalist call for a battery recycling and reuse industry, as they see high returns in an industry set to mushroom. Europe and North America, where companies may take decades to build domestic mines, could find already processed materials in the batteries their own citizens have already imported. Sellers of recycled materials will likely find eager local customers among battery cathode producers like Umicore, which plans to open its first plant in Europe.

“We shouldn’t think of recycling as a kind of waste treatment, that we’ll have a mountain of waste. We should do recycling because we need the material,” says Hans Eric Melin of consultancy Circular Energy Storage.

And, with more transparent and cleaner standards, the spread of an important tool for climate action can withstand attacks from consumers and other industry players. Supply chain problems have become cannon fodder for oil lobbyists, whose industry has raised global temperatures, igniting environmental crises around the world. The EU battery directive proposal in its current form would aggregate data, which could ameliorate concerns about dirty supply chains.

“We’re going to get a lot of transparent data that’s going to come back, and our prediction at least for the carbon footprint is that battery production’s footprint is going down a lot recently, and it’s going to be a lot lower than previous studies have suggested,” Keynes says.

To some extent, electric vehicle battery recycling is keeping pace with the low levels of battery production. As recyclers grow in tandem with battery producers in wealthy countries, governments, scientists and advocates hope to get in front of a number of logistical and technological roadblocks.

Targeting incentives

Recycling has the potential to dramatically reduce the need for new minerals to be mined. As a result, the EU has focused its battery recycling legislation on keeping materials within its own borders. It has proposed requirements to recycle a certain proportion of each battery and to include certain levels of recycled content in each new battery.

The European Commission has proposed each new battery in 2030 should source 4% of its lithium, 12% of its cobalt, and 4% of its nickel from recycled sources. Those figures are linked to proposed requirements to recycle 70% of the lithium and 95% of the cobalt, nickel and copper of each end-of-life battery. Recovered material could be sold into other industries, and recycled content may come to batteries from other industries as well.

Current best practices, says Keynes, could recover much more of the metal lost. Higher – but still realistic – targets could recover the metals lost by up to two-thirds, according to a Transport and Environment report Keynes co-authored in February.

“This is where targets can help drive the market,” Keynes says. “For lithium recovery, for example, it’s not economical. The market is not going to drive that on its own, at least in the short term.”

An emboldened battery recycling industry could reduce the need for new materials dramatically, according to a March report prepared for U.S. mining NGO Earthworks by the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney. By 2040, the report says, a quarter of lithium demand, 35% of cobalt and nickel demand, and more than half of copper demand could be satisfied by enhanced recycling alone. Aided by boosting other forms of transportation and mitigating consumption, national governments hoping to wrest control over their own resource supplies could find those proportions of demand within their own borders.

“We can accelerate the transition to a sustainable materials economy by ensuring that the minerals in electric vehicle batteries are sourced responsibly,” says Payal Sampat, mining program director at Earthworks.

Material uncertainty

However, there are still some uncertainties about setting targets 10 years in the future. Battery technology changes frequently, and in 2030, the recycled materials from end-of-life batteries may not match the kinds of batteries being sold. Just in the last five years, several different kinds of batteries have held the title of “cutting-edge.” Nickel, for example, was an important metal to replace cobalt a few years ago, but now companies are already planning to get rid of nickel as well. The recycled content targets for cobalt, which has been rapidly phased out, may be easy to reach, but up-and-coming batteries may struggle to find the recycled materials they need. For instance, next-generation batteries like solid-state, which uses more lithium, may hit the market. As a result of this mismatch, Melin worries that recycled content requirements may actually work to limit battery production.

“They basically put a cap on how many batteries you can sell, because if you have a certain level of recycled content, and there are no more batteries to recycle, then you can’t [sell them],” he says.

Efficiency and reuse

Meeting these targets may require employing new technological advances in recycling. Current recycling relies mainly on methods that shred and burn batteries, then use acid to leach out valuable materials. Materials like graphite are left to waste, and carbon components are released as greenhouse gases. Businesses that use these techniques rely on cobalt and nickel recovery to finance their operations, but both metals are increasingly avoided in new batteries due to their high cost and environmental, social and governance (ESG) concerns.

The U.S. government, in promoting recycling as a battery material source, has also said it plans to devote more funds to places like Argonne National Laboratory, which has led research into battery supply chain research and direct recycling, a technique that aims to recover battery components intact, preserving its embodied value, eliminating additional costs of extracting and purifying the raw materials. In the United Kingdom it is the Faraday Institution that has led battery recycling research.

“We need the [EU] regulations to incentivise investments in innovation as well. We’re not expecting technology to stay static for eight years, and we need Europe and North America to catch up,” says Keynes.

In establishing recycling targets, regulators also intend to send a message to manufacturers that their batteries will do better in the market if they are more easily recycled. The proposed legislation includes required labelling from 2026, which would likely aid recyclers who have cited trouble in identifying the contents of the batteries they handle.

Other issues remain. Batteries built for the European and North American markets are often difficult to take apart without removing much of the embodied value. After a regulation in China made manufacturers responsible for ensuring recyclability, batteries like the easy-to-disassemble BYD Blade Battery were produced. In addition to addressing disassembly issues, a recent paper in iScience found that streamlining transportation of end-of-life batteries would dramatically reduce costs for recyclers.

Rather than technological improvements, Melin thinks the best thing for recycling would be battery production. The more batteries in circulation, the more efficient current processes will be. Melin thinks of recycling as a kind of “last resort” only to be used once other options have been exhausted. Reusing EV batteries for grid storage or other cars has received less attention from policymakers, and it has the potential to greatly extend the value of materials.

“There is a lot of room for improvements, but essentially it’s a fundamental thing here: to be able to consolidate enough volume of batteries to have an economical process. Usually, both in Europe and the U.S., that has been very hard, usually because you have found better value by sending the battery elsewhere,” he says.

Car dismantlers have typically found more value in selling used cars outside of the United States and Western Europe to places where buyers are interested in batteries that others have discarded, and where it’s often unclear how the potentially toxic and dangerous products are managed. Keeping the second-life batteries closer to home, however, risks leaving developing regions without access to cheap clean energy technology. In addition, regulations define such batteries as hazardous waste, and collecting and reusing batteries are often held up by inconsistencies across jurisdictions, according to the Earthworks report.

“Reuse and second life is one of the most important parts of the circular economy … that we squeeze out as much value as possible from the products we are creating,” he says.

By Ian Morse

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