The growing number of electric vehicles on U.S. roads poses a question: What will happen when those cars go out of service? Without recycling, their batteries may become 8 million tons of global scrap by 2040.
Yet those end-of-life lithium-ion batteries are an important resource. They contain viable and valuable materials that can — and should — be recovered.
To address this challenge, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) launched the ReCell Center in February 2019. The $5 million per year center, which is funded by DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Vehicle Technologies Office, is leading the way to make pivotal discoveries in cost effective lithium-ion battery recycling so valuable battery components such as cobalt and nickel compounds don’t go to waste.
The ReCell Center is a collaboration between DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory, which leads the initiative, National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), as well as Worcester Polytechnic Institute, University of California at San Diego and Michigan Technological University.
In the Q&A below, ReCell Center director Jeff Spangenberger, the Materials Recycling Group Leader in the Applied Materials Division at Argonne, discusses the challenges and opporunties for battery material supply and recycling in the U.S.
Q. U.S. reserves of cobalt and nickel, the two critical metals needed to make today’s lithium-ion batteries, are not enough to meet the growing demand for batteries as the country aims to achieve a 100% clean energy economy and net-zero emissions by 2050. Recycling of these metals will be critical, but remains cost prohibitive for most components in the battery. How is the ReCell Center addressing this challenge?
A. It’s true that we don’t produce many of the materials that go into our batteries. The batteries we buy are predominately made from materials produced and manufactured outside of the U.S. The batteries we buy and use here are a great source of these critical materials that can be used to help provide some of the materials we need to manufacture batteries right here in the U.S. Improving the economics of recycling these batteries in the U.S. is the goal of the ReCell Center.
ReCell is working to develop lithium-ion battery recycling technologies that have the potential to substantially increase the revenue potential. Much of this stems from our work in direct cathode recycling which does not break down the chemical structure of the cathode like other technologies. Keeping the cathode structure intact allows us to eliminate the downstream costs of having to remanufacture the material back into that structure. This cost savings is realized by higher value products, cathode materials, from the process of the other technologies, raw material feed for cathode material. The active cathode material can be worth twice as much, and even more, than the raw materials that go into making it.
Manufacturing scrap is an early entry point for direct recycling. We envision the technology being able to reduce manufacturing losses by recovering anode and cathode material from scrap and putting it right back into the beginning of the process. With improved recycling economics there will be value remaining at the battery’s end-of-life which will help to perpetuate recycling and all the benefits that recycling offers. Even further, improved economics provide the opportunity that will end up lowering the cost of the materials that go into our batteries. This will ultimately lower the cost of new batteries and enable even more electric vehicles on the road and an even greener energy grid to charge those electric vehicles.
Q. Argonne organized an internal town hall in May 2020 to organize expertise and efforts that could advance the goal of designing new technologies to strengthen U.S. manufacturing and recyclability, and reduce dependence on foreign sources of critical materials. This goal is one of five to be addressed by 2030 as outlined in the Energy Storage Grand Challenge. Can you share some key takeaways from that meeting?
A. It’s important to realize that recovering resources by recycling alone is not enough to close the supply chain gap that exists. Once we have recovered these materials, either from mining or spent batteries, we need to manufacture them back into battery-grade materials and ultimately back into batteries, right here in the U.S.
At our internal town hall, dozens of Argonne scientists, engineers, and modelers gathered to share their related work and ideas and many important takeaways were identified. It was a great experience.
The first observation is that modeling is needed to help us better understand the true scope of the challenges related to this goal of the Energy Storage Grand Challenge. It was also determined that new technologies developed to reach this goal will require a full understanding of the fundamental mechanisms that make separation processes work. And one of the final takeaways, was that it will take low-cost, robust new ideas and separation technologies to help the nation realize a truly domestic supply chain—all the way from upstream to materials needed to manufacture new batteries.
It’s exciting to me to see that Argonne has such a wide variety of talent and capability that spans the range of needs we are facing related to our battery supply chain. The thought of us being part of such an important effort for our future is extremely eye opening to me. I look forward to working with, and learning and from, others on this quest, outside of Argonne. We have several ongoing supply chain projects and I look forward to seeing more. We create a lot of great technology at Argonne but we need industry’s input to make sure the technologies we are working on make sense to them. After all, it is industry that makes this whole thing work, so I invite them to reach out and get a discussion going with us.
Q. The Argonne-developed model called “EverBatt” allows battery manufacturers and recyclers to determine the cost and environmental impacts of recycling different battery designs. The model breaks down each process from its manufacture to its being recycled into a new battery. EverBatt leverages Argonne’s previously developed Greenhouse Gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy Use in Transportation (GREET) model and its Battery Performance and Cost (BatPaC) model. What’s the next key innovation needed to develop low-cost recycling methods?
A. Let me start by saying that EverBatt is a unique model because, as far as I know, it is the only truly circular product model that helps to calculate the cost and environmental impacts at each stage of a battery’s life. This makes it useful to a variety of stakeholders.
It can be used simply to obtain general information on the environmental benefits of recycling batteries. It can be applied in a more sophisticated manner to compare processes with one another, anywhere from manufacturing, to collection, to recycling, and back to manufacturing—but with recycled content. It also can be used to help see the big picture advantages of designing for recycle.
And there are uses for this type of model that we haven’t even explored yet. Some of the key things that EverBatt helped us really see clearly is the fact that shipping of the batteries accounts for a large cost in the recycling infrastructure. We also learned that essentially any type of lithium-ion battery recycling is better for the environment than simply using virgin material and throwing it away at the end of its life.
As far as the next key innovations needed to develop low-cost recycling methods goes, I think the advancement of direct recycling is an obvious player to me. It isn’t going to be the answer for everything though. There is a lot of work going into both pyrometallurgical and hydrometallurgical recycling technologies and we are going to see a lot of improvements in efficiency there.
I also think that creating more value from some of the non-cathode materials in a battery is going to help the economics of battery recycling, especially anode material.
Another critical area that we need innovation is on the collection end. We need to figure out how to increase collection rates of our consumer electric batteries and we need to ensure an efficient collection infrastructure for our electric vehicle and stationary storage batteries. There is a lot of talk about second use of batteries so there needs to be a way to know how much useful life is left in a battery and what application it is best suited for.
Who is going to “triage” these batteries to determine how to get the most value out of them? What tools and technologies can we come up with that will help out with this task? How can we improve dismantling large batteries for reuse or recycle?
I have to admit that using the EverBatt model, an R&D 100 winner, is a great way to throw an idea against the wall and see if sticks while also helping to fine tune proven technologies. EverBatt is a free model to download and we are happy to help industry partners get started with it, or for bigger projects we can work collaboratively through more formal agreements such as Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAs). As I mentioned earlier, collaboration with industry is key.
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