Battery Recycling: How to Get There, Progress Along The Way

By Allison Proffitt

February 22, 2021 | Battery recycling was the subject of a symposium last month at the Advanced Automotive Battery Conference, Europe, and rightfully so. It’s the focus of a great deal of attention.

In the closing session of the symposium, Sascha Nowak, Head of Analytics & Environmental, at the University of Muenster, asked the panel of speakers if they expected a single, standard recycling plan to emerge that could handle all battery chemistries. It’s a question he gets asked a lot, he said.

No, the panel said. Marcel Weil, scientific research group leader at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, said a pure metallurgical process could recycle the range of lithium-based chemistries, but it wouldn’t be efficient. He instead suggested a mix of mechanical treatments and hydrometallurgical processes.

Markus Hackmann, managing director of P3 Automotive, pointed out that a single plan wouldn’t meet the needs of various OEMs anyway. There won’t be one Gigafactory for recycling, Hackmann said. He predicts many recycling facilities close to OEMs. All of the OEMs are thinking of closed loop systems, he said.

Steve Sloop, president of OnTo Technology, agreed that a single recycling technology would be difficult to achieve. “You can’t put an iron phosphate battery into a hydrometallurgical plant and hope to get cobalt out of it,” he quipped. But he is positive about consolidation in parts of the process. OnTo’s deactivation technology works on alkaline through lithium batteries, he said. “Most anything except lead.”

The diversity of solutions is tied to the concept of the ownership of the battery, explained Ola Hekselman, Faraday Institution Entrepreneurial Fellow at the Imperial Collage London. Cell manufacturers—who are creating different cell chemistries and geometries—must take ownership of their batteries, she said.

Daniel Bien, global fluid technology advisor at ExxonMobile Petroleum and Chemical, agreed. Wouldn’t it make sense to have the battery producer also be the recycler, he said? Cell manufacturers should have the tools and knowledge to most efficiently recycle the products.

Hekselman also predicted more sophisticated market models developing to return batteries to the manufacturer or OEM. For instance, instead of buying the battery for your electric vehicle, what if the batteries are rented or leased. This incentivizes the return of the battery to the manufacturers, where recycling facilities can be located next to the gigafactories.

But these market shifts have costs associated with them. Currently, Hackmann said, innovations in battery recycling need to incentivized. In Germany, we need subsidies for this, he said, mentioned combined projects between government ministries and industry players. No one is willing to spend tens of millions of dollars on that, he said.

Global Endeavors, Incentives

And those subsidies do exist. In Germany, two new battery research clusters, “greenBatt” and “BattNutzung” funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), are focusing on recycling-friendly battery design and further development of recycling processes and resource cycles, among other projects. At KIT’s Institute for Mechanical Process Engineering and Mechanics, single process parameters and process chains of mechanical recycling are simulated with high resolution, compared, and optimized to ensure economically acceptable, environmentally friendly, and function-preserving battery recycling. Researchers also consider innovative approaches, such as shockwaves, ultrasonic methods, or wet grinding, which guarantee high material selectivity, preservation of functional materials, and high safety due to the use of water.

In the US, groups are joining forces to advance battery recycling technologies and achieve scale. Last week, Aqua Metals, an innovator in lead battery metal recycling with its AquaRefining technology, announced it is expanding into lithium-ion battery recycling by investing in LiNiCo Corporation and leasing the company some of its McCarran, Nevada, plant. LiNiCo is a newly capitalized cleantech aggregator focused on closed-loop lithium-ion battery recycling.

Along with two other groups, Aqua Metals and LiNiCo plan to form an eco-network to advance best-in-class technologies to recycle lithium-ion batteries at volume, both economically and sustainably. The other proposed members of the network include Green Li-ion, a Singaporean company whose mission is to create a lithium-ion battery recycling technology designed to uniquely generate high-purity, high-value cathode ready material; and Comstock Mining, another Nevada company, which is engaged in the systemic valorization of critical metals. Comstock Mining is a majority investor in LiNiCo. LiNiCo is an investor in Green Li-ion, providing Aqua Metals with an indirect investment in Green Li-ion.

On a positive note, Ola Hekselman pointed to promising the track record of recycling of lead acid batteries. These processes are now well-optimized, she said. Today, it takes 25% less energy to harvest lead by recycling than to mine it from ore. That’s the promise of coming to scale with lithium-ion, she said.