Recycling technologies for end-of-life lithium ion batteries (LIBs) are not keeping pace with the rapid rise of electric vehicles, setting up a potentially huge waste management problem for the future, according to a new study led by researchers at the University of Birmingham.
The review of lithium-ion battery recycling suggests that, while electric vehicles (EVs) offer a solution for cutting pollution, governments and industry need to act now to develop a robust recycling infrastructure to meet future recycling need.
The study, carried out in collaboration with researchers at the universities of Newcastle and Leicester, is published in Nature.
The recycling challenge is not straightforward: there is enormous variety in the chemistries, shapes and designs of lithium ion batteries used in EVs. Individual cells are formed into modules, which are then assembled into battery packs. To recycle these efficiently, they must be disassembled and the resulting waste streams separated. As well as lithium, these batteries contain a number of other valuable metals, such as cobalt, nickel and manganese, and there is the potential to improve the processes which are currently used to recover these for reuse.—Dr Gavin Harper, lead author on the paper
The issue of LIB waste is already significant and is set to grow as demand for EVs increases. Based on the 1 million electric cars sold in 2017, researchers calculated that 250,000 tonnes —half a million cubic meters—of unprocessed pack waste will result when these vehicles reach the end of their lives.
Analysis by the Faraday Institution—the UK’s independent institute for electrochemical energy storage research—points to the need for eight gigafactories in the UK by 2040 to service the demand for LIBs. The UK will need to develop sources of supply for the critical materials required for these batteries and recycled material could play a important role.
Electrification of just 2% of the current global car fleet would represent a line of cars that could stretch around the circumference of the Earth—some 140 million vehicles. Landfill is clearly not an option for this amount of waste. Finding ways to recycle EV batteries will not only avoid a huge burden on landfill, it will also help us secure the supply of critical materials, such as cobalt and lithium, that surely hold the key to a sustainable automotive industry.—Professor Andrew Abbott, of the University of Leicester and co-author
The study identifies a number of key challenges that engineers and policy-makers will need to address, including:
Identifying second use applications for end of life batteries;
Developing rapid repair and recycling methods, particularly given that large-scale storage of electric batteries is potentially unsafe;
Improving diagnostics of batteries, battery packs and battery cells, so the state of health of batteries can be accurately assessed prior to repurposing:
Optimizing battery designs for recycling to enable automated battery disassembly, safer than the current manual handling techniques; and
Designing new stabilization processes that enable end-of-life batteries to be opened and separated, and developing techniques or processes to ensure that components are not contaminated during recycling.
These batteries contain huge amounts of power and at the moment we are still relatively unprepared about how we deal with them when they reach the end of their life.—co-author Professor Paul Christensen, of Newcastle University
Prof. Christensen is working with a number of UK Fire and Rescue Services on developing protocols for dealing with lithium-ion battery fires.
Many of the ideas suggested for recovery of high-value materials will be trialed by the Faraday Institution’s ReLiB fast-start project funded by the Faraday Institution and by the ReCell Center, at Argonne National Laboratory, funded by the US Department of Energy.
Harper, G., Sommerville, R., Kendrick, E., Driscoll, L., Slater P., Stolkin, R., Walton, A., Christensen, P., Heidrich, O., Lambert, S., Abbott, A., Ryder, K., Gaines, L., & Anderson, P., (2019) “Recycling lithium-ion batteries from electric vehicles,” Nature Volume 575 Issue 7781 doi: 10.1038/s41586-019-1682-5