Less than 5% of lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries are currently recycled, while global demand for electric vehicles (EVs) continues to rise, to a projected 140 million by 2030. In turn, more than 10 million metric tons of  Li-ion batteries may reach the end of their useful service life in the nine years between now and 2030. In addition, mining the materials used in Li-ion batteries has environmental costs. Tackling Li-ion battery end-of-life issues is critical to meet the increasing demand for EVs while also conserving natural resources.

CAF discussed the challenges – and opportunities – with two major innovators in the Li-ion battery recycling sector: Kunal Phalpher, Chief Strategy Officer at Li-Cycle, based in Toronto, Ontario, and Roger Lin, VP Technical Marketing at Battery Resourcers, based in Worcester, MA. 

Market growth, driven in part through increasing environmental restrictions around the disposal and recycling of Li-ion batteries, is expected to reach $US22.8 billion by 2030, according to MarketsandMarkets Research. Heavy metal ions and electrolytes from abandoned Li-ion batteries would cause harm to both the environment and human health. Recycling companies, working with automobile manufacturers (OEMs) in the USA and Canada, are developing innovative solutions through R&D.  

Unique solutions for an evolving challenge

Li-ion batteries generally have an anode, cathode, electrolyte, a separator, and a sealing case, although their development (both materials and design) continues to evolve. Currently, there are three basic processes for Li-ion battery recycling, each with disadvantages and advantages: hydrometallurgical, pyrometallurgical, and direct cathode recycling.

CAF asked Kunal and Roger to explain how each of their company's solutions works.

"There's no high temperature, so that's a key part of our business model," says Kunal Phalpher. "It's our proprietary two-stage Spoke & Hub process, with batteries mechanically submerged and shredded to their intermediate products in the 'Spokes' – one in Canada, and one in Rochester NY, with two more being built in the USA." He adds the process is adaptable for all sizes and types of li-ion batteries. The Spoke produces copper and aluminum metals from the processing of lithium-ion batteries, primarily from the foils within the Li-ion batteries, along with  gold and silver from circuit boards. It also yields 'black mass', which is a mix of cathode and anode battery materials, including lithium, nickel, cobalt, and manganese, as well as graphite, copper and aluminum.

The second stage of the process is the 'Hub', and Li-Cycle's first Hub facility will be in Rochester, New York," explains Kunal. "The Hub is the hydrometallurgical refining process to convert 'black mass' to battery-grade materials. It's a process with low temperature and standardized operations, such as solvent extraction, and leaching. The innovation is how our process results in high recovery to create those high-purity products. It's a closed-loop lithium-ion battery supply chain."

'Black mass' is obtained from shredding the cells, and is an active material powder that includes high amounts of various materials, including cobalt, lithium, manganese, and nickel, which can be reused for battery production.

Roger Lin says that the process used by Battery Resourcers is a patented technology called hydro-to-cathode. "Making the process more economic and efficient, and better for everybody involved is a primary focus for us," he says, explaining that the process takes recycled materials, breaks them down into their core elements and then rebuilds them directly into cathode materials.

"It goes directly from a hydrometallurgy process into cathode synthesis, creating critical battery materials such as nickel-manganese-cobalt cathodes, and potentially high-purity graphite as well," he says. "It's a way to differentiate between processes like hydrometallurgy, where you leach all the valuable materials, and separate them into metal salts like cobalt sulfate, nickel sulfate, and manganese sulfate, and sell those materials into the commodity markets. 

"Battery Resourcers skips that separation step and doesn't create the intermediate compounds. Instead, in a single 'one-pot' process, we take the black mass that comes from the shredding operation and process it directly into new cathode active materials, which can go into battery manufacturing plants, and back into the supply chain. So that's our unique approach to processing. We're reclaiming about 99% of the mass of the batteries that go into the hopper at the front end of the process. "

Partners in the recycling drive 

"Automobile manufacturers are helping the drive towards more recycled materials," says Kunal, adding that they're also driving their supply chains to use more recycled materials.

While some of that interaction is driven by policy, and sustainability goals, Kunal believes the biggest contributing factor for the manufacturers is simply a need to reduce their CO2 footprint. He adds: "A more sustainable supply chain is something that many of the groups are striving to work towards. They're helping to drive innovations in the recycling of the Li-ion batteries." 

Roger also believes automobile manufacturers are embracing the idea, realising it will be part of the supply chains: "Recycling is absolutely part of the consideration as they build their business models and their supply chains out."

He adds the company has recently seen many automakers engage with battery-recycling companies to ensure that the process of battery returns/recycling is done properly – whether for batteries at end-of-life or through warranty returns, and for all those tons of off-spec battery parts or partially finished battery cells: "They all need to be taken care of and recycled, as there are some valuable elements inside and if improperly disposed of could cause contamination or fire safety hazards." 

Spent Li-ion batteries can be recycled to release high-priced metals such as lithium, cobalt, nickel, copper, and aluminum, with good resource value although prices do fluctuate.

More efficient than new?

Responding to the idea that recycled battery materials might be perceived as inferior, compared to newly or freshly mined materials, Roger says that idea has been recently dispelled. He refers to a recent study that assessed the performance of recycled Li-ion batteries that had "pretty surprising" results.

"In two areas, the results showed that recycled Li-ion batteries –those made with the hydro-to-cathode process – actually outperformed the ones made from traditional, newly mined materials," he says. "The areas of improvement are cycle life (how many times can it charge and discharge before it loses its ability to hold the necessary charge), and power (performance under heavy load when you're dumping a lot of energy very quickly). Cycle life improved over 50% while power improved 88%. So that information is going to start turning people around to understand the advantages of putting all of the scrap material through the recycling process because it creates greater value by not only reclaiming critical elements but also through higher performance of the products made from these recycled materials."

The concentrations of metals such as nickel, cobalt, manganese, and lithium can be higher when recovered from recycled Li-ion batteries than when extracted from natural sources.  

Future outlook

The market for Li-ion battery recycling is growing, with some projections of a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of almost 20% from 2021 to 2026. An International Energy Agency (IEA) report indicated a 'significant increase' in lithium demand to fill the global demand for EVs.

Kunal notes that Li-Cycle is developing additional Spoke facilities and expects to start construction soon on building its first commercial Hub Li-ion battery recycling plant in Rochester, NY. The company plans to continue to grow globally, including through regional joint ventures.  

Battery Resourcers is planning its first US-based commercial-scale facility to open in 2022, with a process capability of 30,000 tons of batteries per year. The company has a partnership with Honda to recycle Li-ion batteries from its EVs, and has backing from Jaguar Land Rover's InMotion Ventures. It also plans to expand commercial-scale operations to Europe, with plans to be operational by the end of 2022. 

Li-ion battery recycling offers potential environmental, social, and economic benefits. For example, using recovered materials in the manufacture of new Li-ion batteries reduces the need for mining finite materials, with its associated social problems. In addition, the recovered materials can be sold as a commodity. Innovations and technological developments in the closed-loop technology of Li-ion battery recycling continue to increase to meet and exceed environmental and social standards while also satisfying the growing demand for scarce battery-grade materials.

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