But with this expanding market for automotive lithium-ion batteries, some questions emerge:
- Will there be enough lithium to meet the added demand?
- What will happen to these car batteries when they reach the end of their useful life?
to lithium-ion batteries.
"It's important to consider potential material supply constraints before moving ahead with an ambitious program of development for any new technology," said Linda Gaines, Argonne transportation systems analyst.
EUROPE AND US has invested on developing new standards for EV and batteries including issues on environment like recycling batteries and non-metal parts of EV cars. Videos shows recycling opportunities from oil spills, etc.
As part of the Argonne research effort, Gaines and her colleagues are analyzing the available battery recycling processes and how they compare in terms of materials recovery, energy efficiency and emissions production.
To gain insights into existing battery recycling operations, Gaines has visited and researched facilities in the U.S., Canada and Europe. She found a wide variety of recycling practices, with most facilities concentrating on the recovery of valuable metals like cobalt and nickel.
At one extreme, there are smelting processes that recover basic elements or salts. Smelting takes place at high temperature, and organics are burned as fuel or reductant. Valuable metals are recovered and sent to refining so that the product is suitable for any use. Other materials, including lithium, are contained in the slag, which is used as an additive in concrete. Smelting facilities are operational now on a large scale and can take just about any input.
At the other extreme, battery-grade materials can be recovered directly. This type of process requires the battery feed to be as uniform as possible because impurities jeopardize product quality. A variety of physical and chemical processes separate the components, and all active materials and metals can be recovered. Some components may need to be purified or reactivated to make them suitable for reuse in new batteries. Only the separator is unlikely to be usable. This low-temperature process requires minimal energy.
"The recovery of battery-grade materials would help avoid the energy requirements and emissions from production of raw materials," Gaines said. "Recovered materials would also be less expensive than virgin materials, but we need to make sure the quality is good enough."
Recovering lithium from battery recycling is currently not a common practice. This is because lithium is relatively cheap and most batteries contain only small amounts of lithium, presenting little economic need or incentive for such a process.
"Right now it hardly pays to recycle lithium," Gaines said. "That could change as demand increases and larger supplies of materials are used."
In a first step toward building a domestic infrastructure for lithium battery recycling, the U.S. Department of Energy awarded a $9.5 million grant to Toxco in 2009 to build and operate an advanced lithium battery recycling facility at its existing site in Lancaster, Ohio. The plant was previously dedicated to recovering materials from lead acid and nickel-metal hydride batteries. Toxco also operates the only lithium battery recycling plant in North America in Trail, British Columbia.
Gaines and her fellow researchers are conducting further studies to identify the greenest, most economical recycling processes. Research includes investigating recycling practices to determine how much of which materials could be recovered with current or improved methods, and quantifying the environmental impacts of both battery production and recycling processes through life cycle analyses. The Argonne research team is also considering the possibility of reusing old batteries for utility storage before recycling.
Thus far, research has shown that recycling lithium-ion batteries would reduce environmental burdens and extend material supplies. However, achieving the aim of recycling is not without difficulties, Gaines said. Recycling processes have their own costs and impacts, and recovered materials may have such low value that recycling does not pay. This reality leads to questions such as:
- Will battery manufacturers be willing to purchase recovered materials?
- Will materials from today's batteries be compatible with materials in use 10 or 15 years from now?