Lithium-ion battery fire at Ecomaine's recycling facility (Source: YouTube)
Lithium-ion batteries have become an essential part of our everyday lives and continue to enable the trend towards electrified transport. However, from exploding train cars to waste facilities burning down, it is becoming increasingly evident that there needs to be better awareness, controls, and behaviors to address the safety risks associated with lithium-ion batteries.
Since 1991, 206 separate incidents occurred involving the combustion of lithium batteries on airlines. Thermal runaway, which is a term for an uncontrollable exothermic reaction that emits large amounts of heat, can occur in lithium-ion batteries when damaged or short circuited. Disasters from uncontrolled thermal runaway can be devastating, even when caused by portable/small format lithium-ion batteries. For example, Rumpke’s recycling facility in Cincinnati (a general materials recovery facility/MRF) experienced 6 fires in 2016 alone due to consumers disposing of their batteries improperly. The image below provides an example of one of these fires from 2016.
Rumpke recycling plant fire (Source: YouTube)
Lithium-ion battery and thermal runaway fundamentals
When considering the dangers of a lithium-ion battery cell, its fundamentals must be understood. A lithium-ion battery cell consists of the following:
To produce electricity, an oxidation reaction at the anode, releasing electrons. Simultaneously, a reduction reaction occurs at the cathode, allowing the cathode to receive the electrons released by the anode, forming an electrical circuit.
The anode and the cathode are isolated from each other via the separator, but over time, separators have the potential to wear down. Breaching of the separator causes high amounts of current to flow directly between the anode and cathode, short-circuiting the cell and producing tremendous amounts of trapped thermal energy.
At the onset of thermal runaway, the battery heats in seconds from room temperature to approximately 700°C. As a result, the electrolyte breaks down into constituents such as methane, ethane, and ethene, as well as flammable and toxic gases such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and hydrogen gas. The cathode then begins to decompose, releasing oxygen, further accelerating the thermal runaway process. When the flammable electrolyte gases react with oxygen in the presence of heat, combustion occurs. The risk for explosion increases as the pressure in the cell builds.
Lithium-ion batteries have a dual chemical and electrical hazard, including the chemical hazards listed in the table below.
Potential hazardous chemical species emitted during thermal runaway (Source: Concordia University)
Mechanical damage of lithium-ion batteries such as accidental rupture or puncturing can result in the release of the electrolyte leading to the exposure of possibly toxic, corrosive, and flammable chemicals.
There are numerous factors that can cause thermal runaway:
A Samsung Galaxy Note 7 that has experienced thermal runaway (Source: Business Insider)
Comparison of lithium-ion battery safety relative to other energy storage mediums
Although it is important to be aware of the specific safety risks associated with lithium-ion batteries, technology cannot be assessed in a vacuum. The graph below puts the relative energy density between example energy storage mediums into perspective. Evidently, lithium-ion batteries have a much lower energy release potential compared to gasoline, the fossil fuel that powers most of the internal combustion engines that society interacts with.
Comparison of various energy storage technologies (Source: Accurec, United States Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy)
Lithium-ion battery safety - now and into the future
The majority of lithium-ion batteries have historically been manufactured for portable uses (e.g. personal electronic devices such as laptops, mobile phones). Given the inherently limited calendar lives of portable lithium-ion batteries, and their broad use globally, spent lithium-ion battery volumes have been rapidly increasing in recent years. As this has occurred, spent lithium-ion batteries have increasingly made their way to unsuitable supply chains (e.g. general material recovery facilities/MRFs). Safety concerns are now growing even more with the emergence of large format batteries such as battery electric vehicle batteries and grid scale energy storage solutions.
Emerging solid-state battery technology aims to address a key driver of the historical safety issues in lithium-ion batteries – the low flash point electrolyte solvent that essentially acts as a 'fuel'. Solid state batteries use solid electrolytes and electrodes, eliminating the fire hazard present with current liquid electrolytes. However, this new technology is still in its nascent phase with years ahead until commercialization.
Nonetheless, there is an impending ‘tsunami’ of spent lithium-ion batteries that will enter the market, in addition to the existing robust base of spent batteries. As a result, there is a serious need to continue to develop safe and effective means of handling, transporting, and storing lithium-ion batteries.
What can consumers and manufacturers do to ensure safe lithium-ion battery practices?
At a consumer level, most lithium-ion battery incidents occur due to over-charging, mechanical abuse of the electronic equipment in which the battery is enclosed, and disposal of lithium-ion batteries into the wrong waste streams. Consumers should always follow the manufacturer’s specified charge times and the voltage at which the battery should be recharged. Thus, it is recommended that lithium-ion batteries should be recharged using the original charger that came with the product or one that meets the manufacturer’s charging specifications.
In addition, lithium-ion batteries and electronics should never be placed in the garbage or regular household recycling bins. In typical material recycling facilities, materials get crushed, punctured, and dropped – all conditions that will likely cause thermal runaway in a lithium-ion battery. Consumers need to do their part to contact their local battery or electronic waste collection service provider to dispose of their batteries and/or electronics properly.
At an industrial level, manufacturers, recyclers, and other key entities involved in the lithium-ion battery supply chain should aim to mitigate the risks of lithium-ion battery incidents by strictly complying to and exceeding all applicable standards and regulations.
Li-Cycle™ estimates that the world will be faced with an estimated 11 million tonnes of spent lithium-ion batteries between 2018 and 2030. Stockpiling lithium-ion batteries could reportedly cause a fire epidemic within the waste industry. Li-Cycle Technology™ is a key part of the solution to this problem. Our technology is uniquely positioned to provide a safe, environmentally friendly, and low cost/high value recycling solution. Moreover, Li-Cycle™ continues to engage with partners across the lithium-ion battery supply chain to ensure world-class safety standards as Li-Cycle™ and the industry continue to scale rapidly.
A labourer climbs through a cobalt and copper mine in Kawama, Congo (Source: Washington Post)
As lithium-ion batteries electrify our world through the proliferation of electric vehicles, grid-scale energy storage, and consumer electronics, the demand for critical materials continues to burgeon. Critical materials include cobalt, lithium, graphite, and more, each having their own unique supply chain dynamics.
Cobalt is a critical component in lithium-ion battery cathodes for high energy and power applications. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) accounts for almost two-thirds of global cobalt supply. However, some of the artisanal stream of cobalt production in the DRC has unfortunately been documented to involve child labour. Additionally, 98% of cobalt is mined as a by-product of copper and nickel, and hence cobalt supply has historically been relatively inelastic.
In order to mitigate risks and ensure high standards of social responsibility, manufacturers are actively looking to ensure providence associated with DRC-sourced cobalt supply, while some are looking to diversify away from the region. Alongside, the recycling of cobalt and other critical materials from lithium-ion batteries could play an integral role in minimizing bottlenecks and price swings into the future.
Mining: the starting point of the cobalt supply chain
In 2016, an Amnesty International investigation exposed how lithium-ion batteries could be linked to child labour in the DRC. The country has had a long history of foreign exploitation of its natural resources and is now a hot spot for foreign companies to extract high-value and abundant minerals. The Congo is responsible for more than 60% of global cobalt supplies. Approximately 20% of their cobalt exports reportedly originate from artisanal mines, the majority of which are unregulated and sometimes illegally operated.
The DRC is responsible for 60% of global cobalt supply (Source: Bloomberg, Macquarie Research Report)
Artisanal miners are typically impoverished workers working in harsh conditions without the help of mechanized equipment. With no idea of their enormous role in the global cobalt supply chain, these workers spend day and night mining by hand, with the constant risk of possible cave-ins, with little oversight and few safety measures. In order to secure only $2-3 a day, it is common to see artisanal miners digging along roads, railroad tracks, through the dirt floors of their own homes, and even by dangerously trespassing into privately owned land of mining companies.
Child labour and its unfortunate role in the cobalt supply chain has been an acute concern across industry. In 2012, UNICEF estimated that 40,000 children were taking part in the DRC’s mining industry. However, this devastating problem has only been aggravated by another socio-economic issue in the DRC: the lack of schools and government resources to establish them. “We have a big challenge with these children, because it is difficult to take them out of the mines where there are no school for these children to go to,” said Richard Muyej Mangez, a high-ranking government official in Kolwezi, as part of an interview with the Washington Post in 2016. Due to minimal resources and without a proper system to take these children out of dangerous working conditions, the local government has been hard pressed to find a solution.
Artisanal mining practices in the DRC (Source: Washington Post, Financial Times)
From the DRC’s mines to the latest products
So how exactly does cobalt from the DRC’s mines and other sources move into the rest of the world’s consumer electronics? Companies such as Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt are responsible for a significant level of cobalt processing and production. Huayou Cobalt produces cathodic precursors (e.g. high purity cobalt sulphate heptahydrate) to supply to cathode manufacturers, who in turn sell the cathodes to battery cell and pack manufacturers. Ultimately, electric vehicle and consumer electronic companies utilize these lithium-ion battery cells and packs in their end products.
Manufacturers have recently increased their efforts in supply chain due diligence and tracking. A recent report from Amnesty International, Time to Recharge, has ranked industry leaders such as Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, BMW and Tesla on how these companies have worked to improve unethical cobalt sourcing in the last several years. Nonetheless, there is still a significant amount of work to be done to protect human rights abuse and prevent child labour in areas like Kolwezi in the DRC.
Supply chain dynamics and the recycling of lithium-ion batteries
With the recent boom of cobalt demand due to its extensive use in smartphones, laptops and in the rapidly growing applications of electro-mobility, cobalt prices have recently risen to over $42.50 per lb. (over $93,700 per metric tonne) as of March 2018. Alongside, the DRC plans to double tax rates on cobalt as well, which could inhibit mining investment in the country.
By 2020, lithium-ion batteries are forecasted to account for 60% of annual global production of cobalt. As battery and vehicle manufacturers ramp up their operations globally, cobalt supply has had trouble rapidly responding to demand. Although there are a variety of companies exploring new primary mining sources of cobalt, it will likely take years to bring any new discovery into production. Manufacturers have sought long-term supplies of cobalt; however, the inelastic supply dynamics of cobalt have proven difficult to overcome.
Projected cobalt supply and demand (Source: Bloomberg New Energy Finance, USGS, Avicenne, CRU)
Could the recycling of lithium-ion batteries mitigate the current and near-term cobalt supply challenges? In short, yes – by 2025, lithium-ion battery recycling could meet 20% of the forecasted global demand for cobalt. In turn, lithium-ion battery recycling will reduce the social and environmental impacts of artisanal mining in the DRC. Moreover, recycling can mitigate drastic price swings in cobalt and other critical materials, as well as the reliance on mining and refining into the future.
Li-Cycle Technology™ is uniquely positioned to enable the maximized recovery of cobalt and other critical materials through recycling lithium-ion batteries, due to its closed loop nature. Subsequently, recovered materials are re-integrated into the lithium-ion battery supply chain and the broader economy. In turn, Li-Cycle is enabling a completely transparent and ethical supply chain for 100% recycled cobalt and other critical materials.
The recycling of cobalt from lithium-ion batteries is playing an important role in supply chain diversification and will increasingly do so into the future.
An e-waste dumping ground in Hong Kong's New Territories (Source: Bruce Yan, SCMP)
Every year, the pace of technological advancement seems to increase, with newer products being continuously introduced into the market. However, as a result, a substantial level of end-of-lifecycle material known as electronic waste or e-waste is produced. It is estimated that the total value of all raw material present in e-waste globally was USD $65 billion in 2016. According to a study by ArsTechnica, approximately 20% of the e-waste in 2016 was documented to be collected and properly recycled. The balance 80% included e-waste that was traded, recycled, or dumped under inferior conditions.
A 55 Billion Euro (65 billion USD) Wasted Opportunity (Source: Global E-Waste Monitor 2017)
In the context of Li-Cycle’s focus on lithium-ion battery recycling, and to understand what drives an inefficient or efficient end-of-lifecycle supply chain, the e-waste industry is an important benchmark. It is also important to assess if there are any parallels with spent lithium-ion batteries, which are a subset of e-waste products and a rapidly growing product stream in other uses (e.g. in electric vehicles).
The electronic waste industry – opportunities and challenges
Roughly three quarters of individuals in North America now own a smartphone. According to a study by Business Insider, American consumers use their mobile phones for approximately 23 months before upgrading. Thereafter, used mobile phones have a variety of end-of-lifecycle fates. According to Fairphone, approximately 1.6 billion phones are estimated to be simply left at home and not enter end-of-lifecycle supply chains. There is also a substantial reuse market globally where these products are modified, refurbished, and sold to make a profit. In some cases (e.g. depending on the device condition), smart phones can enter into formal and informal e-waste supply chains.
Guiyu, China was historically known as the largest e-waste disposal site globally. Prior to significant remediation, small-scale and artisanal recycling caused “Guiyu used to smell strongly of acid, which was used to wash metal and waste, mixed with domestic garbage that was piled outdoors, burned in the fields or discharged into the river.” Guangdong’s government approved a plan in 2013 to force all of Guiyu’s recycling workshops to move into an industrial park. Over 1,200 workshops were consolidated into 29 larger recycling operations after a succession of mergers.
In recent years, Hong Kong has become a global destination for substantial amounts of e-waste. To address domestic generation of e-waste, starting in August 2017, the Hong Kong government began charging a tariff to electronics importers that is intended to fund an e-waste collection service and a domestic e-waste recycling plant.
Mapping to the lithium-ion battery recycling industry – what can we learn?
Driven by applications beyond consumer electronics (e.g. electro-mobility), the volume of lithium-ion battery cells being sold is set to surge. The graph below contextualizes the relative volume (in tons) of new lithium-ion battery cells forecasted to be sold through to 2025.
Global lithium-ion battery cell sales, 2008 to 2025 (Source: Bloomberg and Creation Inn, 2018)
An estimated 5% of lithium-ion batteries are collected for recycling (i.e. not reuse) globally, with some jurisdictions (e.g. some member states of the European Union) having much more efficient portable battery collection rates of >20%. Once lithium-ion batteries reach recycling facilities today, the existing best available recycling technology uses high-temperature processing (i.e. >1,000°C, also known as smelting, a pyrometallurgical method) to recycle lithium-ion batteries. Smelting typically recovers 30-40% of the constituent materials in lithium-ion batteries. The residual 60-70% is either volatilized, cleaned and emitted to the atmosphere, or ends up in solid waste (i.e. slag). Smelting specifically targets the recovery of the base metals in lithium-ion batteries – cobalt, nickel and copper – with only proportions recovered thereof. Critical materials such as lithium are not economically recoverable via smelting. Low recoveries result in an impartially closed lithium-ion battery supply chain loop.
The historical problems within the e-waste industry have been driven by incentives for financial gain via undesirable end-of-lifecycle pathways (i.e. resulting in negative environmental and/or human health impacts) and a lack of consistent regulation. As a result, the e-waste industry has often followed the cheapest disposal pathways in the past. However, developing nations are now implementing more stringent legislation and enforcement to limit the hazards associated with improper e-waste disposal.
In the context of lithium-ion battery recycling, it is imperative that generators have low cost, proximal, and technologically advanced recycling methods, in order to avoid the historical challenges in the e-waste industry. To solve this rapidly growing global problem, Li-Cycle has developed an innovative industrial processing technology that can recover 80-100% of the resources from spent lithium-ion batteries. Through Li-Cycle’s current and near-term operational presence, spent lithium-ion batteries can be recycled locally and do not need to be shipped long distances to processing facilities. Li-Cycle Technology™ is a cost-effective solution and can uniquely enable a closed loop lithium-ion battery supply chain.
A lithium-ion battery inside an iPhone 4S (Source: Forbes, Getty Images)
The Lithium-Ion Battery Boom and its Drivers
As the world trends towards electrification, exponential growth continues in the use of lithium-ion (li-ion) batteries, from the automotive industry, stationary energy storage (e.g. for renewables), and consumer electronics. The consistent improvement and cost reduction of li-ion battery technology has strengthened the momentum behind electromobility. Li-ion batteries are electrifying modern transportation from e-bikes and e-scooters, to passenger vehicles, semi-trailer trucks, and even planes in some use cases. Rapidly falling unit costs ($/kWh) are also increasingly enabling li-ion battery use in grid energy storage and renewable projects.
Considering the multitude of li-ion battery megafactories being developed globally and the current and near-term limitations on li-ion battery life, the world will be faced with a growing ‘wall’ of spent li-ion batteries that will need to be appropriately handled.
The Need for Recycling Lithium-ion Batteries at Scale
Recycling lithium-ion batteries at scale is a fundamental step in preventing them from reaching landfills, and averting artisanal/small-scale recycling from causing even more negative environmental and human health impacts. With an estimated 5% of li-ion batteries currently reaching recycling facilities globally, the remaining 95% percent are either dangerously stockpiled or often become landfilled waste. Landfilled batteries have a greater opportunity to leach toxic heavy metals (e.g. nickel, manganese) into the surrounding environment. These heavy metals can eventually make their way into our water systems and through the food chain, if left unaddressed. Artisanal recycling approaches (e.g. burning, uncontrolled washing with acid) typically lack environmental controls and are unsafe. Small-scale and informal recycling frequently pollutes the environment and causes serious human health risks in the process.
The United Nations classifies li-ion batteries as Class 9 Dangerous Goods, due to their dual hazard properties associated with their chemical and electrical content. When handled without the proper controls, the risk of li-ion battery thermal runaway (i.e. leading to fire and possibly explosion) increases. Similarly, stockpiling li-ion batteries in an uncontrolled environment can increase the risk of thermal runaway. Complying with the recycling legislation and regulations that surround li-ion batteries is essential to ensure their safe transport and disposition. Therefore, the appropriate handling of spent li-ion batteries through robust recycling supply chains at scale is necessary to ensure public safety.
The need for recycling li-ion batteries at scale is further compounded by the opportunity to recovery critical materials such as cobalt and lithium. For example, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) accounts for more than 60% of global cobalt supplies. Some of the artisanal stream of cobalt production in the DRC has been documented to involve child labour and some of it controlled by insurgent militias. Moreover, 98% of cobalt is mined as a by-product of copper and nickel, and hence cobalt supply is often unable to respond to rapid changes in demand. Vehicle and battery manufacturers committed to the transition towards electrification are looking to secure a long-term supply of cobalt; however, the DRC-centric and inelastic supply dynamics of cobalt are difficult challenges to overcome. In contrast, the recycling of li-ion batteries via Li-Cycle Technology™ can provide a secure supply of cobalt and other critical battery materials such as lithium, with a completely transparent and ethical supply chain. Over the long term, this will aid in reducing the reliance on extracting and refining materials from mineral resources.
Li-Cycle Technology™ - a Closed Loop Solution for Li-ion Battery Recycling at Scale
Li-ion batteries will continue to electrify our world, now and into the foreseeable future. As a key driver of the transition away from a carbon-based economy, li-ion batteries are integral to the opportunity to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. However, to ensure a truly positive impact over the lifecycle of li-ion batteries, we must ensure a closed-loop system is in place to safely handle and recycle spent li-ion batteries at scale. This will enable the reintegration of critical battery materials into the li-ion battery supply chain and the broader economy, while preventing negative environmental and safety impacts.
Li-Cycle is on a mission to secure a sustainable future for the environment through our closed loop li-ion battery recycling technology. Scalability, low-cost, safety, and environmental friendliness are core tenets of commercializing Li-Cycle Technology™. In turn, we aim to enable the global transition to electro-mobility and reduce greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.
Li-Cycle is pleased to announce the release of a corporate video, highlighting our journey in addressing the growing opportunity and challenge of lithium-ion battery recycling.
In order to slow and reverse the effects of climate change, we evidently need to transition away from a carbon-based economy. Electrification and storing energy using li-ion batteries are key parts of that puzzle. But what will happen to millions of li-ion batteries when they die? Li-Cycle CEO and Co-Founder, Ajay Kochhar, poses this question at the start of the video.
Fade in Productions visited our team to film Li-Cycle Technology™ - our validated, patent-pending and environmentally friendly recycling solution for li-ion batteries. The technology has successfully produced battery-grade chemicals from spent li-ion batteries of all chemistries and formats. These enduring products can be directly reintroduced to the li-ion battery supply chain, or in the broader economy.
Li-ion batteries are used in a variety of applications due to the high electrochemical potential of lithium, enabling their application for electro-mobility. The substantial investment in li-ion batteries continues to result in rapidly decreasing unit costs. As a result, li-ion batteries are increasingly being leveraged in stationary energy storage systems. Intermittent renewable power sources such as wind (e.g. the wind farm shown at 01:20 near Shelburne, Ontario, Canada) and solar continue to be enabled by low cost li-ion battery storage.
Kochhar explains that today, only 5% of spent li-ion batteries reach recycling facilities globally. The remaining 95% often reach landfills or are dangerously stockpiled in many cases. Smelting followed by refining is the currently best available technology for recycling li-ion batteries. These processes, however, often have unprofitable unit economics, cannot recover lithium economically, and are limited by maximum recycling efficiencies of 30-40%.
Spent li-ion batteries continue to pose strong threats to health and safety due to the potential for toxic heavy metals to be released into the environment if disposed in landfills or recycled by artisanal/small-scale operations. A short clip in the video (at 00:38), courtesy of Battery Council International, shows an actual explosion that occurred at a lead acid battery recycling facility when a li-ion battery was mistakenly fed to the operation. This near-miss highlights the dangers of improper battery handling techniques and consequences that could result from even a single li-ion battery falling into the wrong recycling stream. As the spent li-ion battery volume surges due to large format applications (e.g. in electric vehicles), rapidly growing challenges with the safety of spent li-ion battery handling must be addressed through advanced supply chains.
As the world moves towards an all-electric future for vehicles, the demand for lithium, cobalt, and other raw battery materials is also growing to unprecedented levels. Lithium chemical supply continues to lag behind surging demand, driven by battery applications for lithium. Other critical battery materials, such as cobalt chemicals, continue to experience supply chain challenges. Over 60% of cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Cobalt production in the DRC has been documented to involve child labour, raising questions about supply chain transparency and social responsibility. Li-Cycle has a significant opportunity to be a near-term supplier of uniquely 100% recycled cobalt, with a completely transparent and ethical supply chain.
To solve these unaddressed needs, Li-Cycle is rapidly executing based on a three-step Master Plan:
Li-Cycle is on a mission to revolutionize the battery recycling industry with a technology that enables up to 100% battery chemical recovery and raw materials, leaving no landfilled waste. In turn, Li-Cycle aims to enable the momentum behind the global transition to electro-mobility and reduce greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.
"Rise of electric cars poses battery recycling challenge"
Porsche's planned fully electric vehicle, the Mission E (Source: Clean Technica/Porsche)
Li-Cycle has been quoted in a second article in the Financial Times - this piece is specifically focused on the recycling challenges posed by electric vehicle lithium-ion batteries. Direct quotes from Li-Cycle are bolded in the excerpts provided below.
The full article is also available here.
"As electric cars roll towards the motoring mainstream, companies are gearing up to address one big environmental question: what to do with the lithium-ion batteries used to power them once they run out?
The batteries used in electric cars are much bigger, last eight to 10 years, and will account for 90 per cent of the lithium-ion battery market by 2025, Roskill forecasts, increasing lithium demand fourfold and more than doubling demand for cobalt — two of their essential elements. The price of cobalt has already risen by more than 80 per cent this year.
Canadian recycling start-up Li-Cycle says to make [lithium-ion battery recycling] profitable you need to recycle all of the battery materials. It claims it can recycle all types of lithium-ion batteries recovering [greater than] 90 per cent of materials including lithium, cobalt, copper, and graphite.
“You get the full economic value . . . that’s what will enable it to be profitable,” said Ajay Kochhar, the company’s chief executive and co-founder. “You need to look at it [in terms of] all the other valuable components contained to really understand what is going to enable this market.”
Mr Kochhar estimates over 11m tonnes of spent lithium-ion batteries will be discarded by 2030. The company is looking to process 5,000 tonnes a year to start with and eventually 250,000 tonnes — a similar amount to a processing plant for mined lithium, he said."
"The rise of electric cars could leave us with a big battery waste problem"
New electric vehicles parked in a parking lot under a viaduct in Wuhan, central China's Hubei province (Source: STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Li-Cycle has been featured in a piece in The Guardian focused on the substantial battery waste problem that the rise of electric vehicles could create. Information and direct quotes provided by Li-Cycle are included in the excerpts below.
The full article is available here.
“The drive to replace polluting petrol and diesel cars with a new breed of electric vehicles has gathered momentum in recent weeks. But there is an unanswered environmental question at the heart of the electric car movement: what on earth to do with their half-tonne lithium-ion batteries when they wear out?
The number of electric cars in the world passed the 2m mark last year and the International Energy Agency estimates there will be 140m electric cars globally by 2030 if countries meet Paris climate agreement targets. This electric vehicle boom could leave 11m tonnes of spent lithium-ion batteries in need of recycling between now and 2030, according to Ajay Kochhar, CEO of Canadian battery recycling startup Li-Cycle.
However, in the EU as few as 5% (pdf) of lithium-ion batteries are recycled. This has an environmental cost. Not only do the batteries carry a risk of giving off toxic gases if damaged, but core ingredients such as lithium and cobalt are finite and extraction can lead to water pollution and depletion among other environmental consequences.
Umicore, which has invested €25m (£22.6m) into an industrial pilot plant in Antwerp to recycle lithium-ion batteries…Grynberg says: “We have proven capabilities to recycle spent batteries from electric vehicles and are prepared to scale them up when needed.”
Problem solved? Not exactly. While commercial smelting processes such as Umicore’s can easily recover many metals, they can’t directly recover the vital lithium, which ends up in a mixed byproduct. Umicore says it can reclaim lithium from the byproduct, but each extra process adds cost.
This means that while electric vehicle batteries might be taken to recycling facilities, there’s no guarantee the lithium itself will be recovered if it doesn’t pay to do so.
This is not the only alternative. Li-Cycle is pioneering a new recycling technology using a chemical process to retrieve all of the important metals from batteries. Kochhar says he is looking to build a [first phase commercial plant] to [process] 5,000 tonnes of batteries a year through this this “wet chemistry” process."
"Electric car growth sparks environmental concerns"
The Mutanda copper-cobalt mine, Democratic Republic of the Congo (Source: Youtube)
Li-Cycle has been featured in a Financial Times article focused on the environmental impacts of the growth of the electric vehicle industry. An excerpt including reference to Li-Cycle is provided below:
“To offset the environmental impact of mining there will have to be a large build out in recycling facilities to meet the first wave of electric vehicles, analysts say. Currently over 90 per cent of lead-acid batteries used in conventional gasoline cars are recycled, versus less than 5 per cent of lithium-ion batteries. An estimated 11 [million] tonnes of spent lithium-ion battery packs will be discarded between now and 2030, according to Canada-based Li-Cycle, a recycler of batteries.”
The full article is available here.
As the lithium-ion battery market continues to scale rapidly worldwide, Li-Cycle is enabling environmentally friendly and economic end-of-life handling for lithium-ion batteries. We're on a mission to ensure that electric vehicles have a truly positive environmental impact over their entire life cycle.
At present, less than 5% of lithium-ion batteries are recycled globally. The existing best available technology is pyrometallurgical (i.e. high temperature treatment) and involves recycling through smelters. This method recovers metal alloys, such as copper and cobalt, but diverts critical components such as lithium to waste streams (i.e. slag from the furnace(s) in these applications). At present, slag is generally sold to the construction industry for use as road base, and lithium is not economically recoverable.
Given that the world is presently facing a near-term deficit of lithium and cobalt chemical supply for li-ion battery manufacturing, this gap emphasizes a substantial opportunity for global positive impact. This article helps answer some of the common questions regarding spent li-ion batteries and why advanced li-ion battery recycling technology is needed.
Why do lithium-ion batteries become ‘spent’?
As a battery charges and discharges, lithium ions move in and out of the anode and cathode. During this electrochemical reaction, a lithiated anode (e.g. graphite with lithium inside) and a transition metal oxide missing lithium are formed. Both the lithiated anode and transition metal oxide are very reactive. These transition materials have been scientifically proven to experience undesirable ‘parasitic reactions’ with the electrolyte solution.
The anode particularly experiences these parasitic reactions, and results in a solid product that deposits on the anode surface at nanoscale. Over time, this forms a passivating film that slows down and limits further electrochemical reactions. This reduces the lithium-ion battery’s ability to deliver energy and eventually causes the battery to become ‘spent’.
What’s the average lifetime for lithium-ion batteries?
The expected lifetime of a lithium-ion battery in large format applications (e.g. automotive, energy storage system) is typically 8 to 10 years. For small format applications such as consumer electronics (e.g. mobile phones), the expected lifetime of a lithium-ion battery is typically 2-3 years.
How are spent lithium-ion batteries handled today?
At present, less than 5% of spent li-ion batteries are currently recycled globally. Moreover, existing li-ion battery recycling method unit economics are often unprofitable and strategic components such as lithium are not recovered.
The best available technology today is smelting or pyrometallurgy (e.g. using a furnace), which primarily recovers metal alloys (typically cobalt and copper). Via pyrometallurgy, lithium in the spent li-ion batteries is lost in the slag/waste stream from the furnace. The slag is generally sold to the construction industry for use as road base and the lithium is not recoverable economically.
Why is advanced lithium-ion battery recycling technology necessary?
The world is fast approaching a 'wall' of spent li-ion batteries. An estimated 11+ million tonnes of spent li-ion battery packs will be discarded between 2017 and 2030. If landfilled, toxic metals in spent li-ion batteries pose a substantial risk for soil and water. Moreover, increased greenhouse gas/CO2 emissions will be released globally if the materials contained in spent li-ion batteries are not recycled and reused.
Li-ion battery recycling is the necessary path to ensure clean air, soil and water globally. Li-Cycle™ is a recycler of li-ion batteries and has the potential to reduce GHG emissions by >1.2 billion equivalent tonnes of CO2 between 2017 and 2040.
Lithium-ion batteries are increasingly powering our world in automotive, consumer electronic, and industrial energy storage applications. The recent li-ion battery boom is being primarily driven by automotive applications in consumer vehicles (e.g. Tesla, Nissan, GM) and large format applications such as electric buses (e.g. BYD). The automotive industry alone is expected to overtake lithium-ion battery demand for consumer electronic applications by 2020.
Given lithium batteries’ rise to prominence over the past two decades, our team tends to receive a lot of questions about the lithium battery industry in general. This article should help answer some of these common questions.
What are lithium-ion batteries?
Lithium-ion (li-ion) batteries are a type of rechargeable battery in which lithium ions drive the electrochemical reactions. Lithium ions move from the negative electrode (anode) to the positive electrode (cathode) during discharge and back when charging.
Why lithium – why not another element?
Lithium is the lightest of all metals, has the greatest electrochemical potential and provides the largest energy density for weight.
What are lithium-ion batteries used for?
Li-ion batteries are increasingly powering our world in automotive, consumer electronic, and industrial energy storage applications. The recent li-ion battery boom is being primarily driven by automotive applications in consumer vehicles (e.g. Tesla) and large format applications such as buses. The automotive industry alone is expected to overtake lithium-ion battery demand for consumer electronic applications by 2020, per Roskill.
How large is the market for lithium-ion batteries?
The global lithium-ion battery market is projected to grow to US$ 210 billion by 2030 at a rapid rate of 17% per year, per Exane BNP Paribas.
What is a lithium-ion cell?
Lithium-ion battery cells consist of four key components:
How are lithium-ion batteries structured?
Lithium-ion batteries can be found in large format (e.g. automotive, energy storage systems) and small format (e.g. consumer electronic) applications. Modularized li-ion battery packs are typically structured as follows:
What raw materials are used to make lithium-ion batteries?
A breakdown of the raw materials in a spent li-ion battery pack is provided below (kg material/kg li-ion battery pack). This is based on a weighted average of mixed format and mixed cathode chemistry li-ion battery packs: