Recycling a lithium-ion battery is not as simple as recycling a cardboard box or an aluminum can. However, the benefits of recycling lithium-ion batteries are considerable, both from an economic and a national security perspective. As the United States tries to reduce its dependence on foreign sources for both batteries and the raw materials needed for their construction, as well as to diminish environmental impact of spent batteries, scientists and industry leaders are looking for new ways to recycle and recover lithium-ion battery components.
At the ReCell Industry Collaboration Meeting held Nov. 7 and 8 at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory, representatives from industry, government, and academia discussed innovative approaches for lithium-ion battery recycling. David Howell, Deputy Director of DOE’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s Vehicle Technologies Office (VTO) gave the keynote talk at the event. The ReCell Center is supported by VTO.
“The sheer magnitude of the potential market makes battery recycling a worthwhile investment.” — Ginger Rothrock, venture capitalist with the Heritage Group
“We’re in a good position to try to address battery waste handling by developing recycling solutions now before electric vehicles become immensely popular,” said ReCell director Jeff Spangenberger.
In addition to Argonne, ReCell includes Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, as well as Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Michigan Technological University, and University of California-San Diego.
The meeting drew representatives from a wide range of companies that focus on different parts of the battery lifecycle. Attendees from automotive original equipment manufacturers (OEM) for instance, are not directly involved in the recycling process but need to make sure that there are available pathways for their batteries to be recycled. Other attendees represented battery recycling start-ups, materials suppliers and battery manufacturers, among others.
“Collaborative projects like this are critical to the environmental and operational sustainability of the lithium-ion battery storage industry,” said Brittany Westlake, technical leader in energy storage and distributed generation at the Electric Power Research Institute. “Connecting the industries using lithium-ion batteries and large metal recyclers with those doing the research and development to address recycling concerns today could help mitigate potential disposal problems before they happen.”
Currently, most of the material cost involved in production of lithium-ion batteries comes from battery cathodes, which are made largely of cobalt, an expensive metal mined and assembled into batteries primarily outside the United States. “We should take advantage of the batteries that we have in our phones, computers and cars today and recover that value right here in the United States,” Spangenberger said.
According to Spangenberger, electric car owners are unable to simply recycle their batteries at the end of their vehicle’s lifetime; they must pay for a service if they choose to do so. The potential of direct recycling technology, which seeks to convert spent batteries to higher-value products as opposed to the current products of lesser value, could offer a more cost-effective way to reuse batteries than today’s methods. “Using direct recycling and cathode upcycling could enable us to get twice as much value from a recycled battery as older techniques,” he said.
Argonne is demonstrating these new direct recycling technologies to determine if the techniques could be viable on the industrial scale. “There are numerous challenges that we’re working through to show that it can be done so industry sees the opportunity and can take it through to commercial practice,” Spangenberger said.
The ReCell Industry Collaboration Meeting also addressed ways to derive more value from recycling electrolyte and foil materials as well as improvements that could be made in supply chain analysis. Although most of the cost savings for battery recycling would come from a move to direct recycling, these additional areas of research could provide other benefits that would make battery recycling more attractive as a whole.
“Recycling of batteries is a crucial component towards achieving the DOE’s near-term cost targets for batteries. The ReCell Center takes a comprehensive look at recycling each battery part, and more importantly at how these different processing streams fit together seamlessly without compromising quality of the recovered material,” said Shriram Santhanagopalan, a battery scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
“The sheer magnitude of the potential market makes battery recycling a worthwhile investment,” added Ginger Rothrock, a venture capitalist with the Heritage Group. “Keeping an eye on recycling efforts is really important to us strategically, because we see crucial technologies being developed by ReCell and related startups being something that we’re interested in supporting. As a venture capitalist, from the financial side, I see investing now for the future being a huge opportunity.”
ReCell is funded by DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Vehicle Technologies Office.
The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy supports early-stage research and development of energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies to strengthen U.S. economic growth, energy security, and environmental quality.
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.