World EV Day 2023: Only about 5 per cent of lithium-ion batteries are recycled globally, much lower than other e-waste categories like computers and TVs, as per the International Energy Agency
In today’s uber-digital era, batteries power an array of devices, from smartphones to electric vehicles. However, the surge in battery usage has led to a critical environmental challenge: what to do with the ever-growing mountains of discarded batteries as they near the end of their operational lives. And this is where clean battery recycling technology emerges offering a critical solution in the quest for a circular economy. This model seeks to minimise waste, conserve resources, and enhance sustainability and economic growth.
The Rise of Battery Waste
The widespread battery usage in laptops, smartphones, electric vehicles, and power tools has caused a surge in battery waste. In 2021, global lithium-ion battery demand was 280 GWh, expected to reach 2,500 GWh by 2030, resulting in more waste due to their short lifespan.
However, according to the International Energy Agency, only about 5 per cent of lithium-ion batteries are recycled globally, much lower than other e-waste categories like computers and TVs. The low rate is due to factors like complex recycling processes and inadequate infrastructure.
Traditional disposal methods, like landfilling, incineration or pyro metallurgy, harm the environment due to chemicals discharged into soil and water. Furthermore, extracting battery materials like lithium, cobalt, and nickel is resource-intensive with additional environmental costs and reduces stress on Earth.
The Circular Economy Solution
The Circular Economy offers an alternative to this unsustainable production and disposal model. At its core, the Circular Economy seeks to keep products, materials, and resources in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them during use, and then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of their life cycle.
Battery recycling technology aligns perfectly with this model. Instead of discarding batteries after their primary use, they can be collected, processed, and recycled to recover valuable materials such as lithium, cobalt, nickel, and manganese from used lithium-ion cells because the fundamental property of these metals is that they can neither be created nor destroyed. These materials can then be reintroduced into the manufacturing of new batteries, reducing the need for fresh mining and resource extraction; just to put some context in terms of numbers, 95 batteries can be made again from used 100 batteries.
The circular economy is a necessary step towards a more sustainable future. It can help to conserve natural resources, reduce pollution, and create jobs. By adopting the principles of the circular economy, we can create a more sustainable battery industry that benefits both the environment and the economy.
The Battery Recycling Process
The battery recycling process encompasses key mechanical and chemical procedures, including:
Collection: Battery recycling begins with reverse logistics, collecting used batteries from various sources, including consumer electronics, electric vehicles, and industrial applications, ensuring a steady supply for recycling.
Disassembly: At recycling facilities, batteries are disassembled to extract black mass—a mix of metals and materials generated during processing. The battery is then broken down into its primary components: cathode, anode, and electrolyte.
Material Extraction: Two main processes are used for battery recycling: mechanical and chemical. Mechanical recycling employs physical methods like shredding, sieving, flotation, and magnetic separation. Chemical recycling, using hydrometallurgy, dissolves the black mass in a solvent and extracts materials through precipitation or solvent extraction.
Purification: Purification processes are employed to meet stringent quality standards for battery manufacturing by removing impurities from the recovered materials.
Re-introduction into Battery Production: Following purification, extracted metals can be used in new battery production or other products. Some batteries may find a second life in grid storage or backup power, reducing the need for primary resource extraction.
Environmental Benefits of Battery Recycling
The adoption of battery recycling technology brings significant environmental benefits:
1.Resource Conservation: It is crucial to practice caring for critical resources so all living things can benefit from them now and in the future and we automatically reduce the need for ecologically damaging primary resource extraction.
2. Reduced Pollution: Proper battery recycling prevents the release of harmful chemicals like CO2 and metals into the environment, reducing soil and water pollution.
3. Energy Savings: Recycling consumes less energy than extracting and processing raw materials, leading to lower carbon emissions and a reduced environmental footprint.
4. Economic Opportunities: The recycling industry creates jobs and economic value while addressing environmental challenges, contributing to economic growth.
Challenges and Collaborative Solutions
As can be expected this promising recycling technology comes with its own set of challenges, including resource scarcity, the need for technological advancement, global collaboration, and consumer awareness. Collaborative efforts are essential to establish efficient recycling networks, find alternative materials, advance recycling methods, set common standards, and encourage battery recycling through awareness and convenient collection points.
Battery Recycling Technology: A Key Player in Sustainability
Battery recycling technology is not just an environmental necessity; it is a catalyst for building a more sustainable future. Innovation in this field calls for collaboration with manufacturers to design products with recyclability in mind. This will boost material recoverability, making the circular business model doubly compelling by extracting value from products. It will also build brand reputation and customer loyalty through environmental and social benefits. Battery recycling technology offers a persuasive and impactful alternative in addressing battery waste and resource scarcity, fostering economic growth, and aligning with our shared goal of a sustainable, circular future.
(Utkarsh Singh is co-founder and ceo, BatX Energies.)