The dream of battery powered cars is not new. One can trace the early origins to a century ago and history is full of attempts to make this dream a reality. But it was only in the late 2000s that the pace of innovation started picking up.
Electric cars were still too expensive (and still are to some extent) and did not have enough range, but consumers were seeing them as an option. Around the same time, solar leasing was becoming inexpensive, and consumers of electricity were rapidly becoming producers and starting to ask about the status of batteries to store excess electricity for use during off-peak hours.
The energy conscious consumer was beginning to wonder about batteries and their future.
And the one question that has consistently come up since then is this: are we planning to recycle these batteries?
At that time, the answer was not very encouraging. We did not have a real plan around battery collection and what to do about them at the end of life. A typical battery in any device is considered to be at “end of life” when it loses somewhere between 20-25% of its useable capacity. There was still significant “juice” left in them, but the useability is poor enough that a consumer would want to replace the battery or the device. There were no strategies to utilize the rest of the capacity in the battery and what to do when the battery was truly dead.
Over the last decade, as more electric vehicles have entered the market and grid storage has become more common, the need to think about end-of-life recycling has taken on new urgency. The recent announcements from car companies and the White House to transform the energy sector means the battery market is primed for growth. This accelerating demand means we will need more raw materials to make these batteries and a plan to recycle them.
The big issue remains the high cost to recycle lithium-ion batteries. Only the most expensive metals (e.g., cobalt) are economically recyclable today, requiring a fundamentally new approach to address this problem. To make things complicated, there is concern around the availability of materials like cobalt and nickel, spurring the battery community to find substitutes. While removing materials that are subject to supply-risk remains important, this adds further pressure on making recycling economic.
There is existing proof that battery recycling can be made economic and ubiquitous: just look at the example of lead-acid batteries where more than 90% of the spent batteries are recycled. We need lithium-ion battery recycling at these levels for sustainability.
In our spring 2021 newsletter we highlight this rapidly changing landscape. We highlight a recent report that Susan Babinec, the Program Lead for Stationary Storage at Argonne, and partners at the National Renewable Energy Lab published on the growing energy storage market. We also spotlight Jeff Spangenberger, Director of ReCell, a DOE-funded center led by Argonne that aims to make lithium-ion battery recycling economic in a time frame that matches anticipated growth.
We also share our efforts to discover cathodes rich in Earth-abundant manganese, to move away from supply-challenged metals in a new series called the “Technology Showcase,” which explains compelling intellectual property created by Argonne energy storage scientists.
The battery material problem requires a comprehensive approach with intense focus on the constituent materials, their availability, and their recyclability. These challenges require a large multidisciplinary team, and the battery community needs to come together to solve them.
Together, we can make the dream of a clean energy future a reality.
Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://energy.gov/science.