Electric vehicle charging station (Source: FleetCarma)
Since their commercialization in 1991, lithium-ion batteries have made dramatic progress with respect to energy density, battery lifespan, and recharging capabilities. These attributes have enabled the growth of the application of lithium-ion batteries across a broad swath of industries, including stationary energy storage systems, consumer electronics, electrified vehicles, and much more.
Driven by end-market demand, incumbent and emerging companies are constantly striving to develop batteries that are safer, have longer cycle and calendar lives, and are more efficient and cost effective than those in the market today. As illustrated by the chart below, global investment in battery startup and growth-stage companies has grown steadily since 2016. In fact, in the first half of 2018 alone, investors more than doubled the total amount invested in all of 2017.
Global investment in battery startups per year (Source: Quartz)
Despite the constant news flow regarding new battery innovations, energy storage technology advancements typically require long development lead times from concept to full-scale/commercial manufacturing. MIT’s Technology Review highlighted this in an article in 2017, documenting the challenges faced by many clean energy start-ups and growth-stage companies. In the article, Ilan Gur, a co-founder of a battery company that was acquired by Bosch, states “don’t hold your breath for the things that come after lithium-ion. We’re much more likely to ride the lithium-ion cost curve for another few decades.” There are two key drivers for the likely long market life of lithium-ion technology: cost and performance.
The price of lithium-ion battery packs have dropped below $209/kilowatt-hour according to a Bloomberg New Energy Finance survey, and some estimates put them as low as $190/kilowatt-hour, with the cost expected to continue falling to below $100/kilowatt-hour by 2025. By comparison, existing competitive alternative energy storage technologies typically have not fallen below the $200/kilowatt-hour level. Emerging technologies that have improved cost and performance require substantial investments to support R&D and to progress to the economies of scale that lithium-ion batteries continue to benefit from.
Nonetheless, lithium-ion batteries have significant room for improvement. As a result, there are a substantial number of evolutionary and revolutionary advancements to lithium-ion battery technology under development. Alongside, a cradle-to-cradle approach is required to assess the value chain opportunities and challenges that emerge as evolutionary and revolutionary changes progress.
Active material advancements are a key focus of the evolutionary shifts in lithium-ion battery technology. For example, the evolutionary advancements in cathodic materials are focused on tailoring lithium-ion batteries for a broad range of applications, while optimizing for key performance indicators such as cost, cycle life, energy density and safety.
The lithium nickel manganese cobalt oxide (NMC) cathode chemistry family was initially commercialized with a 111 composition – 1 part nickel, 1 part manganese, and 1 part cobalt. Since the inception of NMC technology, the reduction of cobalt content has been a key research and development focus, with a focus on reducing cost and reliance on the cobalt supply chain, including cobalt’s Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) centricity and resulting ethical concerns (for more information, please refer to Li-Cycle’s blog post regarding the cobalt supply chain). As a result, NMC cathode technology has gradually progressed to new stoichiometries/mixes, including 422, 622, and recently, 811 compositions. While commercial use of the NMC 811 cell is not likely to occur for at least 2-5+ years, developers have driven key enhancements through research and development to date, including improvements in cycle life, better capacity retention over the battery lifecycle, and lower production costs.
As evident in the chart below, the NMC cathode chemistry family continues to experience consistent growth, even as key entities such as Tesla have prioritized the lithium nickel cobalt aluminum oxide (NCA) chemistry in their electric vehicle product segment.
Delivered lithium-ion battery capacity by type of cathode chemistry (Source: CleanTechnica)
Coupled with evolutionary advancements in lithium-ion batteries, revolutionary shifts are continuously being explored and developed. These changes typically include one or multiple fundamental changes to lithium-ion battery technology, and are focused on enabling step change improvements in key performance indicators such as safety, cost, cycle life, energy density and more.
Solid state lithium-ion batteries have often been heralded as one of the key medium term revolutionary shifts in traditional lithium-ion battery technology. With a focus on safety, solid state lithium-ion batteries are focused on replacing the traditional liquid electrolyte with a conductive solid material. Presently, solid state batteries are primarily utilized in low volume, niche applications, but ongoing development indicates that solid state batteries have the potential to offer higher energy density at a lighter weight, without the thermal runaway issues associated with typical lithium-ion batteries due to the elimination of the liquid electrolyte (Li-Cycle’s blog post regarding lithium-ion battery thermal runaway provides more information). The simplified schematic below provides a comparison of traditional lithium-ion battery technology to an all-solid-state battery.
Lithium-ion battery versus an all-solid-state battery (Source: Android Authority)
Solid state lithium-ion technology has drawn the interest of a broad range of global original equipment manufacturers. For example, Toyota has been a vocal supporter of solid-state lithium ion batteries and have publicly stated their aim to commercialize them for electric vehicle use by 2022. Toyota is not alone in their pursuit of solid state technology – in 2013, Apple acquired Infinite Power Solutions, a company focused on the development of solid state batteries.
Moreover, in 2017, UK-based Dyson announced that it would be investing USD $2.7 billion to bring an electric vehicle with a solid-state battery to market by 2020. However, this timeline has recently been brought into question after a new report indicated Dyson’s first generation of electric vehicles may not feature this technology. Nonetheless, various global startup and growth-stage companies globally are pushing ahead to address the challenges with solid-state lithium-ion battery scale-up, including Massachusetts-based Ionic Materials and Colorado-based Solid Power.
Considering the significant timescales involved and investment required from bench and pilot scale to commercial production, it is likely that solid-state lithium-ion batteries will find their first applications in specific segments, such as consumer electronics. As the technology matures and economies of scale are reached, it is then likely that larger format applications such as electric vehicles will follow. Benchmarking with the typical timelines for new/revolutionary battery technology commercialization, coupled with a consideration of the specific opportunities and challenges that have to be addressed for solid-state batteries, it is likely that mass market adoption for solid-state lithium-ion batteries is at least 8-10+ years away.
Advancing Resource Recovery/Recycling Technology and Li-Cycle
Li-Cycle is on a mission to solve the global lithium-ion battery recycling challenge and meet the rapidly growing demand for critical battery materials. The company seeks to ensure that electric vehicles and lithium-ion batteries have a truly positive environmental impact over their entire life cycle. In turn, Li-Cycle aims to enable the momentum behind the global transition to electro-mobility and reduce greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale.
As lithium-ion battery technology continues to undergo evolutionary and revolutionary changes to further advance the capabilities of the batteries that power our world, Li-Cycle is strategically positioned to provide an end-of-lifecycle recycling solution to all types of lithium-based batteries. In doing so, Li-Cycle aims to create a true closed-loop system, enabling low cost, environmentally sustainable recycling processes and industry-leading safety standards to support the battery industry as it continues to drive global electrification.
Coal fired power plant (Source: Pixabay)
Energy drives the world forward. Conveniently, humanity has been sitting on vast energy sources in the form of fossil fuels; extracting and purifying these deposits have allowed humans to harvest the energy they store for centuries. For example, fossil fuels such as coal drove the industrial revolution, leading to the greatest sustained advancement in the general population’s standard of living in human history.
Fossil fuels and climate change
The world’s reliance on fossil fuels has perpetually increased since the start of the 20th century. The figure below illustrates global fossil fuel consumption over the last 120 years. When fossil fuels or hydrocarbons are burned, they release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Global fossil fuel consumption from 1800 to 2016 (Source: Our World In Data)
Greenhouse gases are gaseous compounds that absorb infrared radiation. These gases include but are not limited to carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). When longwave radiation is emitted from the earth into the atmosphere, these gases trap the radiation. As this radiation accumulates, the atmosphere begins to heat, contributing to what is known as the greenhouse effect. The persistent burning of hydrocarbon fuels increases the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, allowing for greater accumulation of radiation, and thus, increasing the overall temperature of the earth over time. The figure below provides the global carbon emissions from fossil fuels since 1900. The greenhouse effect is the primary contributor to what is known today as climate change.
Global carbon emissions from carbon fuels from 1900 to 2014 (Source: US EPA)
Although the validity of climate change has been intensely debated over many decades, the scientific evidence for warming of the climate system is unequivocal. Climate change has reduced the size of glaciers, shifted plant and animal ranges, and caused more intense heat waves.
Sea levels are rising due to melting ice caps, which if continued, can cause major damage to coastline cities and reduce the salinity of the ocean, which can have irreversible impacts on marine life. Additionally, worldwide net annual costs will increase over time as temperature increases, primarily due to changes in regional habitats. Evidently, urgent action is absolutely necessary.
Proliferation of lithium-ion batteries in stationary energy storage applications
Per the image below below illustrating greenhouse gas emission contributors by industry, energy production in stationary applications is a substantial emission source. In response to this need, industry has been actively commercializing sustainable energy sources over the past decades. Solar, wind, and hydropower are now commercialized, globally prominent and cost effective renewable energy sources.
Global greenhouse gas emissions by economic sector in 2010 (Source: IPCC)
However, the intermittency of these renewable energy sources is often a challenge. Unlike fuels such as gasoline, which can be stored until combusted, renewable energy sources are intermittent – e.g. the sun doesn’t always shine and wind patterns are variable. As a result, energy storage cost is a critical factor in reaching price parity and for widespread proliferation of renewable energy. Lithium-ion (li-ion) batteries are emerging as one of the possible solutions to this problem.
Li-ion batteries are rechargeable batteries that have seen massive market growth through the 21st century. Since Sony’s release of the first commercial li-ion battery in 1991, li-ion batteries have now been integrated in millions of consumer electronics, and are increasingly being utilized in automotive, industrial, and stationary energy storage applications.
Numerous companies are addressing the storage challenge associated with renewable energy sources through li-ion battery technology. Tesla for example has begun developments on various energy storage solutions, ranging from small to large scale. Tesla’s Powerwall is a small-scale li-ion energy storage solution used in conjunction with solar panels, as shown below.
Example application and integration of a Tesla Powerwall in a residential setting (Source: Tesla)
As solar panels from homes produce electricity during the daytime, some of that energy is produced in excess and not used immediately – Tesla’s Powerwall stores this energy for use later when needed. Tesla also has a larger-scale energy solution called the Powerpack, which is scalable for commercial and industrial applications.
Similarly, companies such as AES Energy Storage have also begun developing li-ion battery solutions for the storage of other renewable energies. In 2017, AES integrated a 30 MW li-ion battery-based energy storage site in San Diego, capable of powering 20,000 homes for up to four hours, for the storing of wind and solar energy produced throughout the region. AES recognized that in some cases, there are certain periods where California produces more renewable energy than it uses and acknowledged that a storage solution was essential to ensure that this energy production was not being wasted. AES connects their battery system directly to the grid, providing supplementary electricity to Californians during peak periods and minimizing blackouts using excess energy stored in their batteries during off-peak times.
By the end of 2017, the USA reached approximately 1,080 MWh total of li-ion energy storage systems deployed, which is energy capacity equivalent to the powering 356,400 homes for one hour. 2017 alone saw 431 MWh deployed (up 27% from 2016), and 2018 expects to see upwards of 1,200 MWh of additional energy storage installed. Various states have introduced motions to establish target storage capacities as well – New York, for example, has motioned to establish 1.5 GW of energy storage capacity by 2025. Throughout the next decade, worldwide projections indicate 40% compound annual growth, with a total of 80 GW of energy storage expected to be added to the current 2 GW worldwide today.
The table below provides a cost comparison of li-ion batteries in stationary storage relative to other storage technologies, illustrating the economic drivers that enable li-ion batteries to be competitive in many stationary applications.
Associated costs and savings depending on storage technology type for stationary energy storage (Source: Navigant Research)
As storage technologies continue to develop, a forecast of costs per kWh for various technologies through to 2024 has been provided below. Evidently, on a weighted average basis, li-ion batteries are continuously developing towards the lowest cost quartile storage technology, enabled by economies of scale and technological advancement.
Projected costs for storage technologies in utility-scale applications (Source: Navigant Research)
Lithium-ion batteries and renewable energy - enabling a closed loop supply chain
In addition to the rapid growth the li-ion battery industry is experiencing in applications/segments such as electric vehicles, stationary energy storage is evidently becoming a substantial demand driver. As a result, there is an impending ‘tsunami’ of spent li-ion batteries that will enter the market through a broad swath of applications, adding to the existing robust base of spent batteries.
An advanced resource recovery/recycling solution is required to appropriately handle li-ion batteries across all applications. To solve this urgent global challenge, Li-Cycle™ has developed an innovative, closed loop, safe, low cost, and sustainable industrial processing technology that can recover 80-100% of the resources from all spent li-ion batteries.
Li-Cycle™ is on a mission to enable the continued growth and development of an electrified world powered by renewable energy. Alongside, the company is dedicated to enabling a completely transparent and ethical supply chain for 100% recycled critical materials (e.g. cobalt, nickel, and much more). In turn, Li-Cycle™ aims to support the global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and ultimately slow and reverse the effects of climate change.
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.