Revolutionizing Li-ion battery recycling for a sustainable tomorrow – ET Auto

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<p>The key goal of recyclers is to lower impact of manufacturing new batteries on the environment through reuse of lithium, nickel and cobalt from used ones.</p>
The key goal of recyclers is to lower impact of manufacturing new batteries on the environment through reuse of lithium, nickel and cobalt from used ones.

Rushing towards an environmentally cleaner future, many companies are now eager to build up their recycling capacity, navigating the intricate landscape of evolving battery technologies and new regulations that have been put in place.

As electric vehicles (EVs) become more popular, businesses in Europe, Asia and North America are building huge facilities for recycling the precious metals from lithium-ion batteries. The performance of these batteries becomes poor after being in use for about ten years.

The key goal of recyclers is to lower impact of manufacturing new batteries on the environment through reuse of lithium, nickel and cobalt from used ones. Some are trying to recover such materials as copper or graphite, to have energy-efficient technologies and use fewer chemicals than competitors in the market. Building a healthy lithium-ion battery recycling industry can throw up new challenges. Companies have to keep scaling their facilities, adapt to the new battery technologies and follow new industry norms.

Understanding battery components

While talking about battery chemistries, recyclers mainly concentrate on cathodes, which differ according to region and the products they power. In Europe, the preferred cathode mix is nickel-manganese-cobalt (NMC) oxide. The trend, over the past decade, has moved towards more nickel content for improved energy density with 80% nickel being used at present.

The cathode chemistry in China is dominated by lithium-iron-phosphate (LFP). This is cheaper than NMC, but its energy density is lower, so cars with LFP batteries have a shorter range. According to estimates, by 2030, LFP and NMC will each form nearly 40% of the world’s battery market.

Future recycling needs and techniques

About 1.2 million end-of-line (EoL) EV batteries will require recycling every year, and may go up to 14 million by 2040. The most common recycling methods for lithium-ion batteries include hydrometallurgy and pyrometallurgy. Hydrometallurgical processes break down batteries into a powder (black mass), leaching it with acid and extracting such metals as cobalt, lithium and nickel. The pyrometallurgical processes involve burning batteries to produce a slag of lithium and a compound of other metals. At present, recycling scrap from battery production facilities is the key source, with EoL batteries expected to add much more after 2030.

High-profile recycling initiatives

European companies, like BASF and Eramet, are working on recycling plants eagerly

Swedish battery maker Northolt, launched in 2016, has promised to produce the world’s greenest lithium-ion battery. Located in Skellefteå, its first factory, NorthvoltEtt, began production at end-2021. The company’s yearly production capacity will touch 60 GWh soon, providing for nearly 1 million electric cars every year to such clients as BMW, Volkswagen and Volvo.

Northvolt stresses a low carbon footprint, lowering CO2 emissions from battery production to 33 kg of CO2/kWh, by using mainly renewable electricity at its Skellefteå unit.

Looking ahead: Global recycling capacities

Now, more than two-thirds of recycling capacity is in China, with about 90% located in East Asia and Europe. The goal of the planned facilities is to enhance the entire lithium-ion battery recycling capacity to nearly 400,000 tons. East Asia and Europe are estimated to have the largest battery recycling capacities, while North America is likely to more than double production to over 60,000 tons. Although lithium-ion battery (LIB) recycling technology is partly in place, continuous development is important for further improvements. Researchers play a significant role in finding new roads, adding to the fast-growing recycling industry for global sustainability.

EV battery manufacturers and recyclers recover and recycle lithium, cobalt, nickel and manganese through solvent extraction processes. These allow recovery of more than 90% of the rare metals at +95% purity with more cost-effective investments, high material selectivity, low energy consumption and without toxic fumes than other recovery processes. In India, the present LIB recycling industry mainly comprises retired batteries from portable electronic products. Later, LIBs from EVs may control the recycling market needing bigger recycling units.

At present, hydrometallurgy and pyrometallurgy are the most popular recycling technologies as direct recycling emerges as a dominant technology. The heterogeneity in battery cathode chemistries, such as NMC, nickel-cobalt-aluminium (NCA), lithium-iron-phosphate (LFP) and lithium-manganese oxide (LMO) complicates the development of feasible recycling business models with any given recycling technology. It is important to understand the factors that influence the financial viability of recycling units to recognize the steps needed for building a sustainable recycling ecosystem in India.

A schematic of the evolution of LIB technology is shown in the following figure A:

Waste LIB packs can have serious consequences even when not functioning. So, it is important to follow proper safety measures while storing them. It would be better to keep the large packs in spacious chambers with enough gaps in between and away from hazardous sources until further treatment. The storage facilities must have smoke-detectors, fire suppression systems, climate-controlling accessories, mechanical ventilators, grated fibreglass flooring and sufficient entry and exit doors for handling emergency fire incidents. External conditions, such as sudden temperature changes, mechanical impact and higher humidity may impact storage safety.

Storage for periods beyond the state of charge (SoC) which may bring about irreversible side-effects is not advisable for ensuring a second service life for potential batteries.

Figure B represents the stepwise black mass recovery of the electrode materials from LIB e-waste:

(Disclaimer: Dr. Yashodhan Gokhale is CTO at Battrixx. Views are personal)

  • Published On Dec 30, 2023 at 07:12 AM IST

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