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: