The challenges of recycling Li-ion batteries

An article from The Economist:

Despite the pandemic, the popularity of electric vehicles (EVs) has continued to grow—around 2.5m battery-electric and plug-in-hybrid cars were sold around the world in 2020. Analysts reckon that, by 2030, 8% of the 1.4bn cars on the road will be electric, rising to more than 30% by 2040.

Replacing the world’s gas-guzzlers with electrically powered vehicles is no doubt good for the environment. But a new headache is on the way: what to do with all these electric vehicles at the ends of their lives?

Although as much as 95% of the materials in a petrol or diesel car can be shredded and recycled in traditional scrapyards, electric vehicles pose a more complex problem. Their electronic components contain a wider mix of materials, including lithium and cobalt in batteries and rare-earth metals in motors. Shredding EVs and sorting through them is tricky.

In a pair of stories in this week’s Science section, we examine how a new industry is emerging to tackle the problems of EV waste.

In our main story, we consider the various ways in which companies propose to recycle lithium-ion batteries, the workhorses of the EV world. Because they are inflammable, these batteries have so far been very difficult to handle. In a second story, we look at the rare-earth metals within the magnets in the motors of EVs. Despite their high cost, these metals, such as neodymium, are hardly ever recycled, but researchers in Birmingham have developed a clever new way to do it. Tipping neodymium-containing magnets into a hydrogen-filled vessel ends up creating a powder that can be processed straight back into magnets.

These new methods will no doubt be useful. But the long-term solution to managing EV waste will be to design recyclability into the vehicles from the start.

An EV’s battery pack is made from many individual electrochemical cells. The cells can be configured in many different ways and different battery packs will have variations in their chemistries. They are generally not made to be taken apart, which makes disassembly difficult and hard to automate.

In the future, standardising the configuration of battery packs and designing them with recycling in mind would clearly make breaking them down into their various components a more straightforward task. Disassembly before processing would also allow some items, like cathodes, to be reused in their entirety, and others, such as electrical connections, to be separated at an early stage to recover their copper. This reduces the number of different materials that go on to be shredded, which in turn should allow those remaining to be recovered more efficiently and in a purer form.

There was another article recently of how they figured out a way to add lithium into the battery again and revitalise it, partly restore it as I understand it, so you can use it for longer before it needs to be recycled. Also, there’s something called “structural batteries” as well, which would allow you to build the frame of the vehicle with stuff that can be the battery, which means you don’t need a big heavy flat battery on the tummy of the car. It will make the car much lighter.

Now let’s hope one of the many good things we hear about actually makes it into production some day :slight_smile:

I’m just waiting for lithium batt recycling to start, that one can sell the cells out of a solar system, and make a few cents back on the bank.

I was under the impression that lithium recycling doesn’t take place as lithium is just so cheap.
Will be cheaper to just mine fresh.

I read a long time ago that they are running out of sources of lithium … IF I recall correctly … or start news mines, ocean, if they want to have the world use lithium batteries.

On top of that, China allegedly buys all the lithium …

There’s of course the idea to re-use Li-ion batteries from EVs in places where the space constraints are not that great, such as houses (With PV systems). So you can use more cells to compensate for the lower capacity in older cells. I understand some local companies are doing exactly that?

You’re thinking of Revov? That’s what I heard too. Cells from cars and buses, repurposed with a BMS. I half expect that the cells might be ex-BYD. I have no proof of this, I just happen to know BYD has an electric vehicle division as well, so that would make sense.

Jip, Revov 2nd Life banks.

FWIW, this semiconductor shortage, it is affecting new lithium banks being brought in. They cannot get BMS’es.