Are lithium ion batteries recyclable?
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Short answer? Not easily. Lithium ion batteries are rechargeable batteries used in several different types of technology, but most pertinently, solar storage batteries like the Tesla Powerwall and electric vehicle car batteries.
As more and more lithium ion batteries are put to use, the world must develop a way to recycle them. Let’s dive into why it is currently a challenge to recycle them, what you can do with old lithium batteries, and the future of battery recycling.
The main difference between lithium and lithium ion batteries is that lithium ion batteries are rechargeable while lithium batteries are not. Lithium batteries are used to power small household appliances such as fire alarms while lithium ion batteries power larger pieces of technology, such as a cell phone or laptop.
While lithium batteries can be recycled, lithium ion batteries are more complex. The recycling process of lithium ion batteries can be dangerous if they are recycled incorrectly, as their components make them highly flammable.
Lithium ion batteries are popular for battery storage and EVs because they can hold a decent amount of power in a small amount of space. They also have a long lifespan and can withstand repeat charges day after day, making them ideal for EVs.
Unfortunately, it is not easy to recycle lithium ion batteries. Lithium can be flammable, making it a dangerous material to recycle and because of that, you cannot simply add lithium ion batteries to your normal recycling bin. Additionally, EV batteries and storage batteries are very heavy, making their transportation to a recycling center an arduous process.
Lithium ion batteries are comprised of cobalt, nickel, copper, and aluminum. Each of these metals can be recycled and reused.
These other metals are what make the cost of recycling lithium ion batteries worth the hassle. In fact, it is cheaper to recycle cobalt than to mine for it. Unfortunately, the opposite is true for lithium. Using newly mined lithium is cheaper than recycling it.
Shredding lithium batteries is the current recycling process. Image source: Nature
Batteries are recycled by being shredded, mixing all of their components. Once all of the metals are mixed into a powder, they need to be separated by either being liquified or dissolved in acid so that the desired metal can be retrieved.
Since the process of recycling batteries is still in the early stages, the United States has suggested an enhancement to the Defense Production Act. The goal is to put money towards securing the metals we need for a clean energy transition while also researching and investing in recycling lithium ion batteries.
Alternatively, instead of shredding old batteries, sometimes batteries within an EV can be reused. Lithium ion batteries have a very long lifespan, and while they will lose their ability to power a car, they can still be used for less intense energy storage needs, like backup power.
Currently, when you replace technology such as your EV or storage battery, recycling the old one is a chore. You can find certified electronics recyclers through the EPA website. Alternatively, some manufacturers like Tesla will take back their lithium ion batteries at the end of their life to be recycled.
At this stage, current recycling methods are not sophisticated enough to extract most of the key metals that can be reused in a way that is more cost-effective than mining.
It is cheaper to mine most metals found within a lithium ion battery than it is to recycle them. Perhaps ironically, cheap lithium mining is one of the many reasons we can invest heavily in batteries. Unfortunately, if we build cheap lithium batteries that are not recycled, we will end up with landfills full of electronic waste.
While recycling batteries may require some extra work and additional cost, the metals within the batteries are durable and usable. Recycling needs to become economical to reduce our dependency on freshly-mined lithium.
Since lithium mining emits a high amount of CO2, using lithium and other metals from recycled batteries is a more environmental and sustainable alternative.
Additionally, a potential shortage of metals that are used within batteries is looming. Discovering a way to reuse all the metals within old batteries will help meet supply needs.
The demand for lithium ion batteries has risen recently, but the ones currently in use have not reached the end of their lives. Due to a lack of dead batteries, recycling methods have been slow to develop.
In anticipation of the coming battery wave, pilot programs such as Call2Recycle are being tested and looking to partner with car companies to recycle old EV batteries. Other companies are joining as well, such as Redwood. Started by a former Tesla employee, Redwood and other companies are springing up to meet the demand for battery recycling.
Redwood and Call2Recycle can take lithium batteries from phones, chargers, tablets, and EVs. They recognize the potential of reusing the metals within the batteries that would otherwise be thrown out.
As batteries become a larger part of our renewable world, recycling and reusing them will continue to ensure we thrive in a renewable energy-powered future. The metals within the batteries remain useful long after its lifespan ends, and it would be an extreme waste of resources if they are not recycled.