World Takes Baby Steps Towards A Lithium-Ion Recycling Infrastructure

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As much as I love the coming onslaught of electric cars, they use lots of materials that currently have almost no recycling infrastructure — especially when it comes to their batteries. The numbers vary by the type of lithium-ion battery used, but on average, for every 100 miles of pure-electric range, a lithium-ion battery needs to contain about 15 pounds of lithium.

Although the developed world has had robust systems in place for a long time to deal with the recycling of lead-acid batteries (in the U.S. more than 95% of battery lead gets recycled), the lithium-ion battery has a long way to go to catch up. Granted, lithium-ion batteries are not nearly as toxic as lead-acid batteries and so the urgency of developing a recycling infrastructure is virtually non-existent. In fact, lithium-ion batteries are classified by the U.S. government as non-toxic and “safe” to throw away in the regular trash.

But from my perspective, throwing away something that contains lots of metals and is a finite resource just doesn’t make any sense. And even if the government says it’s non-toxic, there’s always the potential for large amounts of battery waste to leach metals into our water supply — and that’s never a good thing.

There is one major sticking point, however: The biggest barrier to recycling lithium-ion batteries is that raw mined lithium carbonate has historically had a relatively low market price — from 2001-2005 it had a pretty consistent value of about $1.50 per kilogram. At that level, recycling lithium-ion batteries becomes a money-losing venture. But from 2005-2007, the market value of lithium carbonate rose dramatically to around $3.50 per kilogram along with rising demand.

The market value of lithium is sure to rise higher as electric-drive vehicles take more and more market share. Even so, at the current $3.50 per kilogram, making lithium-ion battery recycling profitable is difficult. Just doing back of the napkin calculations: if each car battery has about 7 kg of lithium, the lithium recycling process, including overhead and personnel, would have to cost less than $24.50 per car battery to make it a profitable venture. Granted, that’s for lithium only, and lithium-ion car batteries certainly contain more recyclable materials than just lithium, but for comparison purposes you start to see the problem clearly.

Lithium-ion batteries account for only 25% of worldwide demand for lithium, but that percentage has risen quickly over the last decade. We don’t currently have a shortage of the stuff and, according to research at Argonne National Lab, the total reserves of lithium on Earth could meet lithium demand through 2050 without any recycling infrastructure — that’s even with an optimistic view of how quickly electric cars and plug-in hybrids capture market share. 2050 may seem like a long way away, but in that time around 10 million tonnes of lithium, give or take, will have been thrown away. Clearly, taking steps now to develop a recycling infrastructure seems like the wise thing to do.

So, along those lines, both the U.S. and Europe have recently awarded relatively small amounts of research funds to a *handful* of lithium-ion battery recyclers to expand current capabilities and/or set up pilot projects. In the U.S., TOXCO was given $9.5 million in stimulus funds to research hydrothermal recycling of lithium-ion batteries. TOXCO has the only facility in North America that can handle all types of lithium-ion batteries. In Europe, Chemetall Lithium was just given €5.7 million ($8.4 million) by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety, to build a pilot plant for the recycling of large format lithium-ion batteries.

While these are important steps in the right direction, the infrastructure to handle the onslaught of electric cars seems to be lagging quite a bit behind the actual onslaught of electric cars.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Used under a GNU Free Documentation License.

Nick Chambers

Not your traditional car guy.