Is It Time for a Lithium-Ion Recycling Revolution?

Dr. Kerry Lanza, Palladium Energy

Lithium-ion batteries have earned and substantiated their label as a “green technology.”  The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers lithium-ion batteries “safe” for disposal in contrast to nickel-cadmium and lead-based battery products, which  can cause environmental issues with careless disposal.

In the US, we typically do not see consumer electronics recycling as much of a money maker. Some electronics makers charge a premium for devices that include “ease of recycling” among their green credentials, while others charge to reclaim their devices for recycling. Nevertheless, as the auto industry races toward bringing hybrid and electric vehicles to market, environmentalist groups and government agencies such as the Department of Transportation, worry about the ability to properly recycle the lithium-ion batteries that power those cars. Unfortunately, there is almost no recycling infrastructure in place today. Does this mean that we have we reached the birth of the lithium-ion battery recycling industry? Some experts say that the need is still a decade away, while others are currently beginning to design and build recycling facilities.

The Economics of Recycling
At a minimum, recycling batteries is appropriate for two reasons. First, Americans will demand it, especially since the impetus for the development of lithium-ion and electric car technology are, at their very nature, environmentally friendly. Second, recycling makes economic sense if the revenue from the recovered materials, plus the avoided disposal costs, is greater than the cost for collection and processing. Although the developed world has a robust system to manage lead-acid battery recycling (more than 99 percent of lead-acid batteries are recycled in the US), the lithium-ion battery has a long way to go to catch up(1). Lead-acid batteries are essentially blocks of valuable metals; lithium-ion batteries simply do not contain much valuable metal to make them economically useful.

Lithium-ion batteries are not nearly as toxic as lead-acid batteries, so not only is the urgency to recycle not there, but in fact, lithium-ion batteries are classified by the US Government as safe to dispose of in conventional landfills. So, is that good news or bad news?  Maybe both. Each year, Americans annually dump two billion lithium-ion batteries into the waste stream(2). However, the scrap value of lithium-ion batteries is perhaps only $100/ton, compared to $1,000 to 3,000/ton for lead. By contrast, the cost of collecting, sorting and shipping lithium-ion batteries to a recycler far exceeds the scrap value. However, this could be off-set by the fact that the cost of other materials in lithium-ion batteries, such as cobalt, have a lower recycling cost than mining new material.

Global Lithium Supply and Demand
It may be time to look to the future. With our mobile lifestyle (driving the development of portable electronics) and the predicted increase in demand for electric vehicles, will the cost of lithium increase and thus making recycling more economically attractive? In 1975, the US Geological Survey convened a symposium on lithium demand and resources. Their concern was that by the year 2000, there would not be enough lithium to meet the demand for fusion power and load-leveling lithium storage batteries. In 1985, there was another predicted shortage when aluminum-lithium alloys were forecast to be used in aircraft construction. Recently, concern was expressed again about lithium availability because of the potential large scale use of lithium-ion batteries in electric and hybrid vehicles.

However in a recent study performed by Argonne National Labs, the global supply of lithium was found to be more than adequate to meet the demand to 2050, even with the optimistic view of how quickly electric vehicles will be adopted(3). Bolivia has the world’s largest reserves of lithium, followed by Chile and Tibet. Lithium-ion batteries account for only 25 percent of the worldwide demand for lithium, but that percentage has risen quickly over the past 10 years. Ceramics, glass and lubricating greases are other major uses of lithium and collectively account for 30 percent of global lithium demand.  While 2050 may seem like a long way off, in that time 10 million metric tons of lithium will have been thrown away.

Lithium Economics
Is it wise to begin taking the necessary steps to develop an infrastructure for recycling now? The US Department of Energy recently granted $9.5 million to a company in California that plans to build a recycling center for lithium batteries. With $2 billion of grants awarded for the development of lithium batteries, this seems like a drop in the bucket, but it is a start. Although, the lithium part of a battery pack is a negligible cost when compared to other metals; nickel and cobalt tend to be the bigger drivers of recycling.

Cobalt, a by-product of copper and nickel mining, is a scarce metal and half of the global supply comes from politically unstable regions of the world.  In addition, some lithium-ion chemistries are even less cost effective to recycle. For example, lithium iron phosphate batteries will not yield a high recycling return, and while this chemistry has advantage over other competitive products, it also makes it less economical to recycle.

In Europe, lithium battery recycling is supported through subsidies. Even with rising prices for metals, subsidies, in the form of a tax added to each cell manufactured, are still necessary and are collected from manufacturers, agencies and governments to support the recycling programs.

Current Status and the Future of Lithium Recycling
Current battery recycling methods require high amounts of energy. It takes six to 10 times the amount of energy to reclaim metals from recycled batteries than it would through other means of metal reclamation processes(4). The current process of recycling batteries starts by removing the combustible material, such as insulation and plastic, with a gas-fired thermal oxidizer. This process leaves the clean cells containing the metals. The cells are cut into smaller pieces and then heated until the metal liquefies.

After removing the slag, the different alloys settle according to their weights and are skimmed off. Cadmium is light and vaporizes at high temperatures. The cadmium vapor is collected, cooled and condensed to a very pure form.

Let’s face it; recycling larger lithium-ion automotive batteries has to be much easier than recycling smaller lithium-ion cells. The collection mechanism and logistics has to be more straightforward, and more in line with  the lead-acid recycling model. Secondly, the large format will warrant separation by type to maximize the value of the recovered materials, which will be in fairly large pieces to justify product disassembly. It is even plausible to remove the cell windings to recover the clean aluminum from the cans.

The investment and innovation pouring into lithium-ion technology for electric cars could be a major advantage for the emerging green power grid. When an auto battery degrades and needs to be replaced, the auto companies could find a healthy market in the utility grid for recycled lithium-ion batteries for use in energy storage. This may eliminate the lithium recycling stumbling block the auto industry is facing. Enter: recycle and reuse.

Future Work
As an industry, we need to make sure the newly developed lithium-ion batteries can be recycled. There has to be a complete estimate of the material available for recycling and the economics of doing so, and these estimates must include the possibility of reuse for lower-duty performance applications. Building on past work and recycling processes, we need to understand the total energy, social and environmental costs to maximize recovery and minimize impact. The lithium-ion recycling revolution may not quite be here today. But, “a revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe. You have to make it fall.” – Che Guevara

Dr. Kerry Lanza is strategic marketing manager at Palladium Energy. They have helped many clients move from lead-acid and nickel-based batteries to greener lithium technologies.

1. Cost of Lithium-Ion Batteries for Vehicles. (2007). U.S. Department of
Transportation Special Report, 1-73.
2. Green, H. (2009, August 17). Li-Ion Recycling Gets Attention. Technology
Review Today, 2(1), 12-15.
3. Hamilton, T. (2009, August 11). Lithium Battery Recycling Gets a Boost. MIT
Technology Review.
4. Buchmann, I. (2009). Battery University. Retrieved from

This article appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Battery Power magazine.

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