In This Issue
Summer Bridge on Critical Materials
June 15, 2024 Volume 54 Issue 2
The summer issue of The Bridge discusses leveraging new and emerging technologies, infrastructure, innovative approaches, and a resilient supply chain to ensure a stable and reliable supply of critical materials far into the future.

Lithium-Ion Batteries: A New Opportunity for the Circular Economy and Recycling

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Author: Francisco F. Roberto and Robert C. Dunne

The circular economy approach is a crucial facet of meeting the demand for critical materials.

This article considers the increasing use of lithium in electric vehicle (EV) batteries—and, to a certain extent, the primary and secondary use of ­lithium-ion batteries (LiBs) in utility-scale and consumer energy storage—in light of current mineral resources and mining practices, and the impact that the adoption of circular economy principles and practices could have on meeting future demand.

Curbing carbon dioxide emissions to meet the Paris Agreement (UNFCC 2015) goal of no more than a 1.5°C increase in global temperature by 2050 is dependent on many concerted efforts across the globe to shift electrical power production from fossil fuels to renewable power sources. Recently the International Energy Agency (IEA 2023) reported that the adoption of renewable energy and battery EVs was on track to meet 2030 net zero emissions targets. The 2023 IEA report also mentioned the potential for the demand in 2030 for a variety of battery metals, including lithium, to exceed projected supply and that additional work in recycling and material-efficient design was needed.

The use of lithium in LiBs is reshaping the distribution of end products utilizing this important metal. It has been reported (Bae and Kim 2021) that, with the increase in use of lithium in batteries to 65%, other uses of lithium have declined to 18%, and the IEA (2023) estimates that clean energy uses will account for 90% of global lithium demand by 2030.

Why Lithium?

Lithium has the highest electrochemical potential (operating cell voltages of up to 3.7V versus 1.2V in lead-acid batteries) and the lightest weight of the battery metals, which have traditionally included lead, zinc, manganese, cadmium, copper, and nickel, with lighter metals for electronics and vehicle applications gaining favor, including formulations containing cobalt and aluminum. The high energy densities of commercial LiBs, now approaching 300 Wh/kg, have made them the logical choice to address passenger transportation and the displacement of internal combustion engine-powered vehicles through at least 2030. For comparison, Tesla automotive batteries range from 60-95 kWh depending on the model. The Nissan Leaf, which is popular in Europe, has a 24 kWh battery, and the Ford Lightning’s 98-103 kWh battery has faster charging rates and a rapidly decreasing cost of LiBs under $150/kWh (the US Department of Energy has established a target of $80 USD/kWh; DOE 2020).

Fire and explosion concerns are also leading to additional LiB formulations that contain iron and ­phosphorus, solid-electrolyte lithium, and alternative metals like sodium. The risk of fire or explosion has led to restrictions regarding the air transport of even consumer electronics carrying LiBs, and LiBs inadvertently or intentionally introduced into recycling streams have led to hundreds of fires at recycling facilities across the United States (EPA 2021). Nevertheless, some form of lithium-ion battery will be used in EV applications until other technologies mature. Time is of the essence with respect to achieving global carbon emissions reductions.

Mineral Security and the Geographic Concentration of Lithium Resources

Many of the metals and minerals required for renewable energy, electrification, and energy storage are not distributed uniformly or broadly. This is starkly demonstrated by the importance of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s large cobalt resources that are unequalled elsewhere around the world. The results of this concentration are manifold: only a few countries or regions may provide the bulk of global supply. This is certainly the case for many of the battery metals, including lithium, nickel, and cobalt—and the locations of these resources may be challenging for mining due to their remoteness, access to labor, distance from established utility grids and transportation, and ecological fragility (e.g., water availability).

The major lithium suppliers to the United States include Argentina and Chile (together representing 91%), China, and Russia. Globally, the South American countries that comprise the so-called “Lithium Triangle,” which produces lithium from brine, include Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina. These countries are estimated to host 70% of global lithium reserves (Tahil 2008). Australia and Canada are the largest producers of lithium from spodumene, a hard rock resource. The CO2 emissions from the primary production of lithium from spodumene are estimated to be two-to-three times higher than those for brines (IEA 2022). Unfortunately, the lower energy intensity of extraction from brines comes at a cost in terms of water lost to evaporation: an estimated 1,900 tons of water per ton of lithium recovered (Harper et al. 2019). The concentration of lithium in spodumene is about three times higher compared to that in brine by weight. The impacts of carbon emissions and water use in lithium primary production cannot be ignored in any lifecycle assessment.

Circular Economy

The underlying principles of a circular economy can be understood from the simple slogan adopted by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “Reduce à Re-use à Recycle.”

Some form of lithium-ion battery will be used in EV applications until other technologies mature.

The EPA has recognized that the US recycling system is lagging behind other countries in being prepared to handle new materials and wastes (EPA 2022). As part of a ten-year program to more fully embrace the circular economy, the need for the US economy to “transition to a more sustainable, circular approach focused on reducing material use, redesigning materials to be less resource intensive, and recapturing ‘waste’ as a resource to manufacture new materials and products” has been identified. The authors hope to make the case that there is value in implementing and time to implement a US strategy for embracing the circular economy, with lithium contained in LiBs as both an important and technically challenging example.

There is value in implementing and time to implement a
US strategy for embracing the circular economy, with lithium
contained in LiBs as both an important and technically challenging example.

There are clear recycling success stories for various ­metals today. For example, it is estimated that over 90% of lead-acid batteries are recycled. Similarly, aluminum and copper are recycled at high rates, and the reduced energy consumption of producing new aluminum products from aluminum recycling (>40%; Gaines 2012) is a compelling argument for increasing the rate of recycling of this metal. Nevertheless, outside of the European Union (EU)—where international cooperative legislation has recently approved a new regulation requiring that 50% of lithium be recovered from waste batteries by 2027 and 80% by 2031, and 6% recycled lithium content in industrial and EV batteries (EU 2023)—the progress towards LiB recycling has been slow (only 1% according to IEA). The United States, under the auspices of the US Department of Energy (DOE) and the Federal Consortium for Advanced Batteries (FCAB 2021), has stated an objective of “creating incentives for achieving 90% recycling of consumer electronics, EV, and grid storage batteries.” However, this does not constitute a proposed regulation.

Reuse

Circular economy “second use” of lithium batteries supports the adoption of non-transportation use in utility and consumer-level energy storage to maximize renewable energy storage in the case of utilities, and to permit backup power and load leveling use of electricity by consumers as a cost-saving measure. It is expected that EV batteries that may still have useful life for non-vehicle applications will be removed from service when they no longer hold 80% of their nominal charge. Second use is complicated by the need to requalify large LiBs (like those for EVs) containing large numbers of smaller cells to be safe. For perspective, the 95 kWh LiB for the Tesla Model S is reported to contain 7104 individual cells (Velazquez-Martinez et al. 2019). Reuse might also require the replacement of failed cells prior to resale and reuse. Utility-scale second use has been estimated to be 105 GWh by 2040 (IEA 2022), so the diversion of spent EV LiBs may only account for a fraction of the EV batteries available for recycling. It has been estimated that 96 GWh will be available to the reuse market in 2030 and 3 TWh by 2040 (Tankou et al. 2023).

Engineering can empower solutions to key challenges to a circular economy for LiBs: engineering can reduce the time, labor, and complexity of requalifying LiBs for second-use applications; improve the safety of handling LiBs during disassembly and recycling at end-of-life for an individual battery; reduce the cost of handling LiBs during disassembly at end-of-life to improve the economics of recycling and maximize the reuse of as many component metals and parts as possible.

The LiB Recycling Process

LiBs are complex devices at the individual battery-cell level as well as in terms of the number of individual cells required to create an EV battery module. Components include non-metals, such as the graphite anode, the ­liquid (and flammable), electrolyte, and plastic ­separator between the anode and cathode. An electronic battery management system is also required to monitor battery cell state of charge, state of health, temperature, and charging rate to shut down the battery and avoid ­thermal runaway if manufacturer setpoints are exceeded. A ­variety of Li-ion chemistries are currently used (Porzio and Scown 2021; Lima et al. 2022), which contributes to the complexity of recycling these batteries, particularly when compared to lead-acid batteries. The success of lead-acid battery ­recycling has been enabled by uniform chemistries and form factors (e.g., the 12V automobile starter battery). While most LiBs contain graphite anodes, the cathode may be comprised of Li-Co oxide (no longer used in EV batteries), Li-Ni-Mn-Co oxide, ­Li-Mn oxide, ­Li-Ni-Co-Al oxide, or Li-Fe-Phosphate (LFP) formu­lations. Most recently Li-Ni-Mn-Co oxide and ­Li-Mn oxide variants with a Li-Ti oxide anode have emerged. These batteries have typical charge cycle lifetimes of ­1000-3000 charges, with the exception of heavier, lower-energy-density LFP (129 kWh/kg; 17) that may exceed 5000 charge cycles, which makes them more suited to heavier vehicles. Ford Motor Company’s F-150 Lightning light-duty pickup truck and Mustang Mach-E use this chemistry. LFP batteries are also safer and are seeing increasing uptake in residential home use and marine recreational applications as well. An economic downside to LFP battery formulations is that they have reduced ­recycling value because they lack more expensive metals such as nickel and cobalt.

The Collection and Dismantling of EV Batteries

LiBs are classified as US Dept. of Transportation Class 9 (Miscellaneous) hazardous materials and as Dangerous Goods by the International Air Transport Association and International Civil Aviation Organization. The additional costs associated with the required packaging and handling requirements for land, rail, sea, or air shipment of spent batteries are anticipated to exceed 50% of end-of-life recycling costs (FCAB 2021). One consequence of these costs may be the establishment of regional or hub recycling centers to minimize transportation costs. Elimination of the flammable liquid electrolyte and modifications of the metal chemistries to avoid thermal runaway are design enhancements that could reduce the cost of recycling. As noted before, inadvertent or deliberate disposal of LiBs in waste and recycling streams has led to hundreds of fires around the world. In the United States the recycling of waste batteries would by definition constitute a hazardous waste treatment and fall under additional regulations.

The first step in dismantling LiBs is discharging the batteries. The variety of form factors and battery types with different discharge requirements and chemical compositions introduces additional hazards and complexity to handling LiBs for recycling. Discharge of stored energy into an energy storage or distribution system is ideal, since that energy can be accounted for as recovered in any life cycle analysis. It is often not feasible to do this, given the wide range of battery module designs and the potentially degraded state of the module when received for recycling. Discharge can be performed in bulk chemically using brine solutions. It is common practice to shred the individual batteries after removal from the battery assembly in an inert atmosphere to avoid fire and runaway exothermic reactions (Harper et al. 2019). If CO2 is used as the fire-suppressing atmosphere, exposed lithium surfaces may react to form lithium carbonate. Alternatively, the shredding can take place ahead of a high-temperature furnace or smelter. The liquid electrolyte may be removed to reduce fire danger and contamination of materials to permit processing of the solid components, including the anode and cathode materials that contain metals and graphite in most cases. Recovery of the electrolyte provides additional economic and environmental value to recycling as hydrocarbon emissions are reduced.

Rosenberg and colleagues (2022) performed a systematic video analysis of the manual disassembly of a 13.5 kWh commercial battery assembly for a Mercedes EV and identified common operations relating to the removal of components and fasteners to estimate the cost per battery assembly at 80-100 euros ($85-106), depending on the size of the recycling plant. They also assessed the impacts of different fasteners, assembly techniques, and subsystem design and cabling that could be optimized for robotic disassembly.

A real-world example of a large-scale LiB recycling effort using the direct recycling approach (with Li-Co oxide cells from a computer manufacturer recall) was conducted on 2.2 Ah cells (Sloop et al. 2020). The discharge of excess power was performed chemically in a sodium bicarbonate brine solution, after which the electrolyte was extracted using liquid CO2. After mechanical shredding of the batteries, the electrode materials were separated from other solid components. This approach was compared to careful mechanical removal of the battery case and removal of the battery components, which were then shredded to demonstrate that shredding of the intact battery yielded similar results. The cathodes were removed and hydrothermally extracted in lithium solution in a pressure vessel; graphite could be separated from the lithium-cobalt cathode. A unique aspect of this work was the downstream processing of the cathode material to regenerate (“relithiate”) cathode material for reuse.

The Recycling of Battery Metals and Other Components

Four approaches have emerged at this time to recover value from LiBs: pyrometallurgical, hydrometallurgical, physical separation, and direct recovery. Each has advantages and disadvantages with respect to inherent energy use, the chemical state of the recovered materials, and cost. This topic has been reviewed extensively in considering circular economy principles in LiB recycling (Bae and Kim 2021; Harper et al. 2019; Tankou et al. 2023; Velazquez-Martinez et al. 2019).

Pyrometallurgical Recovery

In this process high-temperature furnaces combust organic components like the plastic case and internal plastic parts, binders (often polyvinylidene fluoride), ­electrolyte, and graphite anode and reduce the metal oxides to a multi-element slag comprised of the component ­metals. This slag includes the more valuable lithium, cobalt, and nickel, as well as aluminum and copper con­ductors and packaging. The resulting slag must undergo ­hydrometallurgical processing (leaching) to separate and recover the metals individually. The scrubbing of toxic gases generated during operation introduces additional operational costs and the potential environmental impact of this approach.

Hydrometallurgical Recovery

This approach utilizes acid (often sulfuric acid) or alkaline leaching in combination with a reducing agent (hydrogen peroxide) to dissolve the metals in a slurry that can then undergo solvent extraction to concentrate the ­metals prior to selective precipitation as various sulfate, carbonate, or hydroxide salts that can then be used ­directly in producing new battery cathodes. The relative lack of selectivity in acid leaching can lead to mixed-metal salts that are less desirable for reuse. This suggests an advantage in the physical separation of the anode and cathode components of the waste batteries rather than shredding. Subsequent heat treatment of residues can also generate undesirable air emissions depending on the acid used—SOx with sulfuric acid, NOx with nitric acid, and ­chlorine gas if hydrochloric acid is used. The scrubbing of these gases and the need for corrosion-resistant equipment can increase the capital cost of a recycling plant. The use of organic acids and non-acidic reagents may provide a sustainable alternative that reduces potential environmental impacts and capital costs and is suitable for the extraction of lithium from LFP batteries (Pagliaro and Meneguzzo 2019).

Physical Separation

After shredding of the individual cells, a variety of physical techniques, including sieving, magnetic separation, gravity separation, flotation, and filtration, can be used to separate the larger particles into enriched fractions that may include plastics, foils, and the so-called “black mass” comprised of the electrode materials (graphite, metal oxides, and binders). The latter can be further treated with solvents or high temperatures to remove the binders.

Direct Recycling

In this approach, which follows the disassembly and shredding of the individual battery cells, the anode and cathode materials are separated to permit the reuse of the cathode materials after upgrading. The upgrading process involves replenishing lithium that has been lost during discharge and aging of the batteries and restoring the structural properties of the cathode (Yang et al. 2022). This was successfully accomplished in the computer battery recall described previously (Sloop et al. 2020).

Current Recycling Capabilities and Prospects for Recycling 2023-2030

It has been estimated that with current battery technology and an estimated life of ten years, the mass of spent batteries in the United States may grow to 2 million tonnes by 2040; due to the increased uptake of EVs in China, spent LiBs will reach 640,000 tonnes by 2025 (Pagliaro and Meneguzzo 2019).

Recent reviews of commercial and proposed LiB recycling processes and operations (Tankou et al. 2023; Velazquez-Martinez et al. 2019) have led to an important conclusion: these facilities exist to profit from the recovery of other battery metals, primarily cobalt and nickel, and are not optimized to recover lithium. The Umicore process has a 7000 ton/y capacity using low-, medium-, and high-temperature furnaces to sequentially remove plastics and electrolytes, followed by the production of a Cu-Co-Ni-Li-Fe alloy and slag containing silicon, calcium, iron, manganese, lithium, and rare earth elements. The Sumitomo-Sony process has a 100 ton/y calcination to remove electrolytes and solvents, which does not ­recover any lithium but primarily recovers cobalt through a hydrometallurgical leach. Neither of these processes produces usable lithium.

A few examples of other existing processes include:

  • Lithorec—manual discharge of batteries followed by dismantling, crushing under nitrogen, heating to evaporate solvents and electrolytes, followed by sieving and leach in a proprietary solution and calcine (2000 ton/y)
  • Glencore—smelting; cobalt, nickel, copper (7000 ton/y)

Emerging processes include:

  • ReCell (DOE 2020)—a testbed for battery recycling
  • Li-Cycle—using a proprietary solution, batteries are shredded and discharged, and components are separated in so-called “spoke” centers that will then ship them to “hub” locations capable of large-scale hydrometallurgical extraction and processing of individual battery metals. Notable for “hub” that will process 55,000 tons/y of black mass and the recent partnerships with Glencore in Italy and various subsidiaries of LG in North America.

The complexity represented in these approaches is a result of the heterogeneous nature of today’s LiBs and further supports the idea that innovation and standardization of LiBs for EVs over the next seven years would improve the efficiency of LiB recycling and promote ­greater circularity with respect to the various metals and other components required for their manufacture (­Harper et al. 2019; Thompson et al. 2020). In addition, the hydrometallurgical processes that are integral to even the pyrometallurgical recycling approaches described here should be considered within a framework of circular hydrometallurgy (Binnemans and Jones 2023).

The Influence of Government Regulations

The International Council on Clean Transportation (Tankou et al. 2023) provided an excellent comparison of international policy relating to LiB recycling that clearly showed the leadership demonstrated by the ­European Union and China in developing standards and regulations to promote recycling and reuse of LiBs. The EV markets in those countries already must adhere to requirements for traceability and composition of LiBs—battery “passports” that will assist in accounting for and safely handling LiBs at end-of-life. The EU recently updated their LiB recycling regulation, specifying the required amounts of battery metals that must be ­recovered, including ­recycled content in new batteries, as previously mentioned.

At this time US standards and regulations are aspirational at best, although it should be mentioned that the California EPA (Kendall et al. 2022) has published a report providing substantive recommendations from a broad-based advisory panel comprised of state and local agencies, recyclers, automobile manufacturers and ­dealers, and non-governmental organizations to support LiB ­recycling. Many of the federal and state regulations that must be considered in the development of ­recycling capabilities were also considered. Since California surpassed 1 million EV sales in 2021 and annual sales reached nearly 300,000 in 2022 (16% adoption), that state will be a major player in employing and regulating LiB battery recycling in the near future.

Future Prospects

The United States and the rest of the world are faced with existential threats resulting from climate change, accelerated by global warming, and international agreements have been signed to limit global temperature increases by 2050. The measures necessary to limit global warming are aggressive and urgent, but it is clear that the pace of decarbonizing energy generation, transportation, production, and commerce is not yet sufficient to ensure success.

The IEA recently recognized two bright spots of progress: adoption of renewable power (solar and wind) and sales of electric vehicles. For the latter, it is recognized that global mining, often constrained geographically for LiB metals, will struggle to meet increasing demand by 2050, given the existing mines and mines under development for these metals. Employing the principles of circular economy, reuse, and recycling of LiBs is a logical strategy to recover and offset some of the requirements for these metals. It has been estimated that the circular economy could satisfy up to 12% of demand by 2040 (IEA 2022), and as the inventory of spent EV batteries begins to grow after 2030, this approach might even grow to meet more than 25% of demand (Porzio and Scown 2021).

The measures necessary to limit global warming are aggressive and urgent, but it is clear that the pace of decarbonizing energy generation, transportation, production, and commerce is not yet sufficient to ensure success.

This article is not intended to be an exhaustive review of LiBs for EVs, global reserves of the metals mined to produce them, or the recycling strategies that are being developed to recover the key metals that can be recovered and reused from them. Instead, by laying out some of the approaches to reuse and recycling that currently exist and the complex challenges of developing a national ecosystem to accept, extract, and recover value from waste LiBs, we suggest that LiB recycling represents another grand challenge for engineering, for which the United States has limited time, but time nonetheless, to address.

There are perhaps six to twelve years (2030–2035) for the United States to tackle the challenges associated with LiB reuse and recycling and focus our engineering expertise on:

  • Standardizing battery chemistries to reduce the range of processes necessary to recover valuable battery compounds and metals. In the near term, new formulations for solid-state electrolytes that increase energy density and improve safety, as well as non-lithium batteries such as sodium-ion batteries, are developing ­rapidly. Nevertheless, the development of new chemistries should be considered with regard to how they would be recycled in the same light.
  • Standardizing the form factor of EV battery modules, or at least the assembly methods, so that end-of-life ­handling, discharge, and disassembly can be streamlined and automated.
  • Refining recycling processes to incorporate green-chemistry alternatives and reduce energy consumption, offgas emissions, and liquid and solid waste.
  • Developing testing equipment and protocols to streamline the assessment of LiBs no longer suitable for EV use for repurposing in energy storage applications.

The technological landscape associated with the increasing use of lithium and other battery metals in the energy transition is not by any means static. We have described a variety of supply, use, economic, and regulatory factors that can influence recycling of EV batteries in the coming decades. However, short of government regulations requiring recycling, profitability will control the broad adoption of the recycling and circular economy principles briefly described here. Key risks include:

  • Labor costs—collection and battery dismantling are labor intensive and potentially dangerous operations requiring a trained and skilled workforce.
  • Decreased commodity prices of the EV primary ­metals, which may render the current recycling processes ­marginal or uneconomical.
  • New EV battery chemistries that eliminate or reduce the amount of more valuable metal components, such as cobalt, will impact the economics of recycling.
  • Alternative power sources (e.g., hydrogen) may ultimately impact the demand for EVs and reduce the number of end-of-life EV batteries available for ­recycling.

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About the Author:Francisco F. Roberto is director of processing, Newmont Corporation, and Robert C. Dunne is adjunct professor, the Sustainable Minerals Institute, the University of Queensland.