Trends in Lithium-ion Battery Reuse and Recycling

Consumer electronics and electric vehicles largely depend on Lithium-ion batteries for energy storage. The number of electric vehicles in the world has seen a dramatic rise in the last few years, pegging the current number of EVs in the world at around 4 million. According to International Energy Agency, this number will ramp up to 125 million by 2030 and more than 90% of EVs will come with Li-ion batteries. With such volumes of Li-ion batteries driving towards the end of their useful life, there is a pressing need to ensure efficient battery lifecycle management. In this article, we explore basic composition and lifecyle of Li-ion batteries, challenges with recycling and trends in the industry.

To explore alternate battery technologies, read about Sodium-ion Batteries for EV applications.

Let’s first look at the composition of Lithium-ion batteries.

> Anode – made of graphite powder

> Cathode – made of Li-metal oxides i.e. a combination of cobalt, nickel, manganese and iron, depending on the type of Li-ion battery

> Electrolyte – enables the movement of lithium ions between the cathode and anode. A solution of lithium fluoride salts (LiPF6 is common) in organic solvents

> Separator – prevents contact between Cathode and Anode

Constituents of a Lithium-ion battery
Constituents of a Lithium-ion Battery
The Lifecycle of a Lithium-ion Battery

Li-ion batteries have great potential to be a part of circular economy as they can be recycled to their original purpose at the end of life. There are 4 stages in the lifecycle of a Li-ion battery:

Circular Economy for Lithium-ion Battery
Lifecycle of a Lithium-ion Battery

1. First Life – Refers to the original application the battery was produced for e.g. an electric vehicle. An electric vehicle battery is expected to last up to 5-10 years (depending on factors such as climatic conditions and battery handling among others ) before they need replacement. Once the battery performance degrades below its first life use, it is replaced by a new battery pack. For the spent battery pack, there exist three options – Disposal, Repurposing, Recycling. Ideally, disposal should only be done in case a battery has been systematically assessed to be damaged or unfit for reuse or recycling.

2. Second Life – There is still considerable storage capacity (70-80%) left in a battery at the end of its first life. The battery can be re-manufactured to be used for a less intensive application that requires less frequent battery cycling. e.g. a stationary energy storage system for energy generated from a solar power plant. An accurate estimation of remaining useful life and state of health (SoH) of the used battery is required to direct the repurposed battery to a suitable 2nd life application. In 2025, more than 50 GWh of batteries from electric vehicles will reach their end of first life globally. This number is expected to increase to 200 GWh per year by 2030. This presents a huge energy storage potential, considering US uses a few terawatts of electricity storage over a year. The life-span of a Li-ion battery can be prolonged for up to 20 years through re-purposing, thus delaying the need to dispose of the battery.

3. End of Life – At the end of battery life, expert handling is required for collection and safe logistics to a recycling facility.

4. Recycling – Recycling process dismantles the battery and recaptures the valuable constituent materials. The extracted metal and mineral components like Lithium, Cobalt, Nickel, Aluminium and Copper can again be used in the manufacture of new batteries. This is popularly known as urban mining. Recycling of Li-ion batteries is a capital intensive process with dependencies on economies of scale and needs a robust downstream chain for application of extracted materials.

Need for Li-ion Battery Lifecycle Management

Efficient lifecycle management of the Lithium-ion batteries serves to ensure that batteries are completely used and then efficiently recycled to extract material that can be reused. Following factors underline the urgency for Li-ion battery lifecycle management:

– As EVs proliferate, so will the used Li-ion batteries. Circular Energy Storage Consultancy forecasts that 400,000 tonnes of Li-ion batteries will reach the end of life as soon by the year 2022. Sending these batteries to landfills will create hazardous and inflammable waste as cobalt, nickel, manganese, and other metals can leak from the casing of buried batteries and contaminate soil and groundwater. These batteries need to be safely transferred for recycling.

Lithium-ion battery End of Life volume
End-of-Life Lithium-ion Batteries

– 12 billion Li-ion batteries were produced in China in 2018, as per Adroit Market Research. Large scale production of Li-ion batteries is consuming massive amounts of metals and rare minerals. The markets for cobalt and lithium are already getting squeezed with a dramatic rise in demand. According to a McKinsey report, the global demand for lithium is expected to rise up to 672,000 tonnes in 2025, up from 214,000 tonnes in 2017. That for Cobalt is going to go up to 222,000 tonnes in 2025, up from 136,000 ton in 2017. Recycling paves the way for securing the supply for these valuable elements. 

– The prices for battery raw materials remain highly uncertain. Cobalt prices rose over 300% in the period from 2016-2018, with a high of USD 95K/ton in 2018 and then collapsed to USD 25.5K/ton in May 2019. While Lithium carbonate prices rallied over 170% during 2016-18, but slashed from USD 16K/ton to USD 10.3K/ton in June 2019. Procurement of extracted materials from spent batteries can help battery manufactures deal with price fluctuations.

– 43% of the world’s known lithium reserves are in Bolivia, while 59% of cobalt reserves are in Congo. Countries producing the batteries will depend on these politically sensitive countries for importing raw materials. Practice of child labour and safety hazards are prevalent in mining operations in Congo. At the same time, mining for battery raw materials is energy-intensive. Reuse and recycling of constituent materials is key to reducing its toll on the environment and humans.

Challenges with Repurposing Lithium-ion Batteries

Repurposing a battery pack involves testing, assessment, cell auditing, and re-fabrication before they can be made available for a second life application. The battery pack used in a small electric car typical weighs between 200-300 kg and contains hundreds of large lithium-ion cells. Battery health depends on the health of these cells within, that needs to assessed in a non-invasive manner to ensure no damage to the cells in due process. Second life battery developers use methods like tracking the rates of electrical charge and discharge, thermal imaging and parsing data from the battery management system for evaluation of spent batteries.

Repurposing the batteries for a second life faces following challenges:

1. Variety in EV Li-ion Batteries – Estimation of SoH and remaining useful capacity becomes challenging due to variety in the make of EV batteries in terms of electrode chemistry, size and format. On top of that, individual batteries are subjected to different set of conditions and wear-tear during their usage. The challenge lies in accounting for the differences of each used battery while repurposing them for next application that might involve putting many of these batteries together to form an integrated system such as stationary energy storage.

2. Lack of Second Life Battery Standards – Standards for second life battery quality and performance are still being worked out. Absence of widely accepted standards can make the potential buyers vary of opting for second-life batteries.

3. Competition with New Batteries – Second life batteries will compete with new batteries in the market. With advances in technology, new battery prices have been witnessing a fall over the last few years and the trend is expected to continue. According to a McKinsey report, second-life batteries maybe 30 to 70 per cent less expensive than new ones for the same applications in 2025. However, this cost advantage could drop to around 25 per cent by 2040.

Challenges with Recycling Lithium-ion Batteries

According to a BloombergNEF report, recycling wave is around the corner as hordes of Lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles are set to reach the end of useful life. The number will jump to 1 million in the year 2027.

Data for End of Life Lithium-ion batteries

However, recycling of Li-ion batteries comes with its own set of challenges. The foremost issue is that battery recycling requires expensive infrastructure and sophisticated equipment to allow for the extraction and treatment of emissions generated by the process. The operations are high cost, energy-intensive and despite that might not recover all valuable materials. Other challenges faced by recyclers are listed below:

1. Uncertainty over Economics of Recycling – As discussed in an earlier section of this article, battery raw material prices have been volatile. Prices of Lithium and Cobalt slumped in 2019 after rising for the last few years, casting uncertainty on the economics of recycling. In case of raw material price drop, the recycled materials will have a hard time competing with freshly mined materials. Also, advancements in battery technologies may end up affecting the economic send of recycling e.g. Lithium Iron Phosphate batteries have no cobalt – which being high value is one of the main drivers for recycling. If LiFePO4 batteries gain sizeable prominence over other variants, it can make recycling less attractive.

2. Uncertainty of Battery Future – Recycling infrastructure set up is capital intensive and needs to be designed to best suit the make up of Lithium-ion batteries. Concerns remain over potential replacement of Li-ion batteries as researchers make progress with other suitable battery chemistries and different propulsion systems like Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles. 

3. Variety within Li-ion Batteries – Diversity among Li-ion batteries complicate the recycling process as it necessities sorting the batteries by composition and may require different set of processes for material extraction from different types of batteries. On top of it, if the extraction processes are designed specifically for one particular element – additional elements can reduce the efficiency of the process or create other problems.

4. Complexity of Li-ion Batteries – Apart from Li-ion cells, a battery also packs components that need to be dealt with e.g. sensors, safety devices, and controlling circuitry, adding another layer of cost and complexity to the recycling process.

The recycling technology and overall value chain need to be developed so that it is cheaper for battery manufacturers to buy the recycled material over new. Favourable economics for recyclers will help recycling gain scale.

Li-ion Battery Recycling – Global Trends

The need to dispose of millions of used EV batteries in the future has led to the emergence of repurposing and recycling facilities. As per data from Circular Energy Research, there are more than 80 companies in the recycling and second life space around the world. China is leading the recycling race as evident from the numbers. More than 100,000 tonnes of lithium-ion batteries were recycled in 2018 globally. Out of which, around 67,000 tonnes were recycled in China and 18, 000 tonnes in South Korea. Let’s look at some identified trends in Lithium-ion battery recycling:

1. Automakers’ Focus on 2nd life Applications – Regulations in EU and China hold the automaker responsible for battery recycling. EV companies like BMW, Nissan, BYD, Renault and Rivian are contemplating 2nd life applications at the stage of battery design itself. OEMs plan to buy back used batteries and repurpose them for storage systems. Nissan Leaf’s old batteries are repurposed for use in other EVs and forklifts in Fukushima. Renault is collaborating with energy companies to install large scale storage units in Europe under its Advanced Battery Storage Program.

2. China Factor – China accounts for two-thirds of the world’s electrode and electrolyte production and 80% of all end-of-life Li-ion batteries end up reaching China. This presents an excellent opportunity to build vertically integrated value chains around Li-ion battery recycling. According to BloombergNEF, China government is looking to ramp up recycling capacity to 1 million tons by 2030. Chinese companies are investing heavily in scaling extraction and use of recycled materials. In fact, recycled battery minerals can be found in new batteries already today.

In their second life applications, Li-ion batteries are powering industrial energy storage and utility vehicles in China. The Chinese government released a white list of 5 companies namely, Shenzhen-based GEM, Quzhou Huayou Cobalt New Material, Ganzhou Highpower Technology, Guangdong Guanghua Sci-Tech and Hunan Brunp Recycling Technology – that are certified of following government’s recycling policy. More recycling companies are expected to get approved soon.

3. Advancement in Recycling Technology – Researchers around the world are working to improve productivity and thus basic economics of recycling. In January 2019, US Department of Energy launched its first Li-ion Battery Recycling R&D centre – ReCell, with a $15 million investment. The aim is to advance recycling technology to make the process profitable and reduce US dependence on other countries for battery materials. In the UK, Reuse and Recycling of Lithium-Ion Batteries (ReLiB) Project brings together researchers and industry representatives to improve the efficiency of Li-ion battery recycling.

The EU regulation requires a minimum recycling rate of 50% of the total weight of the battery. Canadian company Li-cycle claims to have developed a patented technology that can recover between 80% to100% of the resources from lithium-ion batteries. Fortum claims that its recycling system can recover 80% of the materials from all-spent batteries. Such advancements in recycling technology can go a long way in making recycling scale-up around the world, and not just in China.

Major players in Li-ion Battery recycling outside China include Umicore, Retriev, Recupyl, American Manganese, and Duesenfeld GmbH. Umicore recycles batteries for Tesla at its Antwerp plant in Belgium. Spiers New Technology specialises in second-life applications.

Lithium-ion Battery Recycling in India

The lithium-ion battery market is expected to grow exponentially in the next five years in India and its recycling offers a $1,000 million opportunity at 22-23 GWh capacity by 2030, a latest JMK Research has estimated. The research estimates that the recycling market in India will start picking up from the year 2022 onwards when batteries presently in use in electric vehicles would reach their end of life.

A few companies in India are gearing up for reuse and recycling operations. Let’s take a look at what we know about their plans so far:

1. TES-AMM runs a Li-ion battery collection operation at Kancheepuram, Tamil Nadu for recycling in partnership with Recupyl. The batteries are collected in the country and transported to Singapore for recycling.

2. Ziptrax – A start-up based out of Delhi works on Lifecycle Management of Lithium-ion batteries – managing collection, testing and grading, repurposing, re-fabrication and fitment into a second life for spent batteries. The company is also setting up a pilot plant in Delhi NCR to handle 2 tons of spent Li-ion batteries per day, with an initial investment of INR 3.5 crores or 35 million.

3. Tata Chemicals has set up a Lithium-Ion Battery Recycling Plant near Mumbai to recover raw materials from spent batteries. The operations at the plant have been started under a pilot project, with plans to scale up operations 500 tons of used Li-ion batteries in due course.

4. Raasi Solar and Mahindra Electric have announced plans to set up EV battery recycling operations.

At present, India’s e-waste disposal and battery recycling regulations do not focus on Lithium-ion batteries. For recycling to gain momentum, the government needs to establish a policy framework for end-of-life battery handling and disposal for all stakeholders including end-users, collection agencies, repurposing and recycling units. A clearly defined recycling policy can be clubbed with the overall EV policy. Charging and swapping stations can act as collection centres where end users can deposit their spent batteries and maybe incentivised for doing so. State EV policies need to encourage businesses to set up recycling operations and provide required guidelines and support for the same.

According to Ziptrax website, less than 20% of Li-ion batteries are recycled in India. Lack of reuse and recycling leads to considerable resource wastage that is all the more unfortunate for a country that depends on imports for all of its Li-ion batteries. India is investing heavily in setting up Lithium-ion cell and battery manufacturing to secure its supply and curb imports. Repurposing and Recycling operations will help the county establish a closed-loop economy and cut the import bill.

According to this ET auto report, the Indian government is working on framing a recycling policy for Lithium-ion batteries that will include tax incentives for recycling entities and make the produce responsible for systematic collection of end-of-life batteries. We will keep a close eye and update the article as details of the policy emerge.

Last Updated: 9 Oct 2019

References:

  1. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-08-30/victory-in-electric-cars-depends-on-recycling-so-far-china-s-winning
  2. https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/automotive-and-assembly/our-insights/second-life-ev-batteries-the-newest-value-pool-in-energy-storage
  3. https://circularenergystorage.com/
  4. https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/Electric-cars-in-China/China-scrambles-to-tap-EV-battery-recycling-opportunity2
  5. https://cen.acs.org/materials/energy-storage/time-serious-recycling-lithium/97/i28

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