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Recycling Lithium Batteries Must Accelerate

Demand for Electric Vehicles (EV) is soaring---accelerated by climate change concerns. EVs reduce tailpipe emissions from cars, trucks and buses which are responsible for 30 percent of our greenhouse gas pollutants.

The switch to EVs is worldwide and growing. The Simply Insurance website projects by 2040, 58 percent of global vehicle sales will be electric.

In 2021, China’s EV sales jumped to 3.3 million. Chinese government officials told automakers that electric vehicles (EVs) will make up 40 percent of all sales (39.78 million) by 2030.

In Western states, such as California, Washington and Oregon, the respective governors are developing similar government mandates requiring all new cars, trucks and SUVs sold after 2035 to run on batteries or hydrogen. Today, there are 84,000 EVs in Washington and the goal is to get to one million by the end of the decade

The Herculean challenge is finding enough lithium, nickel, cobalt, and graphite to manufacture them.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) recently reported global lithium consumption alone has increased 33 percent since 2020. “If renewable energy goals sufficient to stop climate change are to be reached, then the requirement for lithium is expected to grow 43-fold.”

To keep pace with demand, at least 384 new graphite, lithium, nickel, and cobalt mines would be necessary, Benchmark Mineral Intelligence reported. Most of the metals are mined in Indonesia, China, Australia, South Africa, Russia, the Congo, and the South American trio—Chile, Brazil and Argentina.

China combined with Japan and Korea account for 95 percent of global lithium battery production. China has the fourth-largest known lithium reserve with 1 million tons, behind Chile, Australia, and Argentina.

“Taking into account recycling of raw materials, the number is around 336 mines,” projects London-based Benchmark which tracks lithium-ion battery supply chain data.

Better and much more recycling is key to addressing those shortages and reducing the need for new mining. Recent studies show most lithium-ion batteries are not reprocessed. Only five percent are currently recycled in the United States.

While nearly all lead-acid batteries from gas and diesel vehicles are salvaged, billions of dead lithium-ion batteries are accumulating in landfills or storage sheds.

Analysis from IHC Markit estimates there are currently around 10 billion or about 465,000 tons of used electric vehicle batteries in need of processing and expects that number to grow to 29 billion by 2025.

Much of recycling today consists of dropping the entire battery into a furnace to melt or shred and grind them, added Ryan Melsert, CEO of American Battery Technology Company (ABTC). Melsert led Tesla’s effort to “de-manufacture” or take lithium batteries apart to develop recycling methods.

There are lessons to be learned from lead-acid batteries, Melsert said, “Anywhere you can buy one, you can return one.” Something similar needs to occur with lithium-ion batteries.

Newer environmentally friendlier closed-loop hydrometallurgical processes are being tested. RecycLiCo Battery Materials Inc., Surrey, BC, has patented processes and have a successful demonstration plant in which over 99 percent of lithium, nickel, manganese, and cobalt are recovered. The system is attractive because leaching agents are also recovered, reprocessed, and reused.

Recycling EV batteries is complicated. Electric vehicle batteries have a lifetime of five to 10 years, and there are about 3,000 battery cells per vehicle, depending on the model. Those batteries come is all sizes and varying composition.

The scope of the problem is daunting. Princeton’s Net-Zero America study found reaching net-zero emissions by mid-century would mean the number of electric vehicles would increase from about one million on the road today to between 210 to 330 million.

Auto manufacturers need to devote added resources and a higher priority to recycling. It is an essential part of their business success.

- Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer, and columnist. He can be contacted at [email protected].


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