Reducing greenhouse gas emissions will require electrification and an enormous number of batteries, sized from types for tiny electronics to enormous power grids. The lithium-ion battery supply chain is an essential part of the current transition, especially for electric vehicles. To meet electrification requirements, researchers project the global need for lithium-ion batteries will grow by over 500% in the next decade. A result: soaring demand for new battery factories and key components of batteries, especially lithium, cobalt, manganese, nickel, copper, and other metals.
As countries around the globe mandate greener technologies, the electrification transition is creating significant challenges and opportunities. Currently, battery metals may travel over 50,000 nautical miles across multiple continents before reaching a US battery cell factory. To decrease reliance on foreign supplies, and to help meet new regulations, establishing sustainable battery-supply chains is an important goal.
In the US, opening new mines is extremely expensive, time consuming, and can have high environmental and social impacts. Fortunately, metals are infinitely reusable, and so automakers, energy companies, and venture capitalists are pouring billions of dollars into new battery recycling plants in North America. These plants will significantly expand the amount of domestically sourced battery materials and batteries—as well as keep the batteries from piling up in landfills. (Note: properly dispose of your dead batteries so that they can be recycled!)
Shredding, Separating – and Waiting
Recycling facilities for lithium-ion batteries typically mechanically shred manufacturing scrap and used batteries in hammer mills. Operators then employ a set of chemical processes called hydrometallurgy, using acids and solvents to dissolve the various metals into powders, which can then be separated into individual metals. The volume of metals that can be reclaimed varies but can be 95 percent on average.
Tesla has dominated the EV business since its inception in 2012, but sales only reached 100,000 vehicles in 2017. Now, however, sales of EVs produced by many companies are booming, and researchers estimate that nearly all new cars will be electric by 2040. EV batteries typically have a 10-to-15-year lifespan, so the enormous number of spent batteries expected from the increase in EVs isn’t going to arrive for at least another decade. This presents a challenge for the battery recycling companies that are opening plants. To be competitive in the future, they must make investments in factories, machinery, and workers—but currently the amount of battery “feedstock” available is extremely limited.
So, recycling companies are relying on production scraps left during battery manufacturing, as well as spent batteries from cellphones, lawnmowers, laptops, tablets, toys, and other discarded items. Domestic battery manufacturers are supplementing the recycled metals they can get with newly mined metals. And waiting.
Growth in the “Battery Belt” and Beyond
The US Department of Energy is currently distributing tens to even hundreds of millions of dollars in grants and loans to spur investment in creating domestic supplies of critical battery materials. Across the country there is an emerging “Battery Belt” of a swath of new battery factories, battery recycling plants, and electric vehicle plants located from Kansas and other Midwest states into Kentucky, Tennessee, the Carolinas, and some of the Southeastern states. Among other advantages, the proximity translates to the greater efficiency of lower transportation costs for large and heavy EV batteries.
The recycling startup Ascend Elements opened what is reportedly the largest EV battery recycling facility in North America in Covington, Georgia, in March 2023. The annual capacity of this plant will eventually equal battery packs from about 70,000 EVs. Cirba Solutions is upgrading a lithium-ion recycling plant in Lancaster, Ohio. The facility is on track to potentially power batteries in over 200,000 new EVs annually.
Redwood Materials announced plans in December 2022 to build a massive $3.5 billion recycling facility just outside Charleston, South Carolina. At a plant in Carson City, Nevada, the company is already processing 40,000 metric tons of input annually, equivalent to around 100,000 battery packs. Redwood Materials has been a leader in battery recycling since 2017, when it was founded by Tesla co-founder J.B. Straubel. The company is developing a fully closed-loop, domestic supply chain for lithium-ion batteries through recycling and refining metals that are used by battery manufacturers in the US, including Panasonic and Ford. (My blog post A Lighter Side of Lithium – Part 2 has more information about this company.)
Billions for Battery Recycling
Although the demand for battery component metals currently exceeds the amount circulating in batteries, recycling will provide a significant supply in the coming decades. In 2022, analysts valued the global battery recycling market size at 1.38 billion US dollars. From 2023 to 2030, they expect this market to grow at an annual rate of almost 38 percent, reaching around $17 billion (USD; compound annual growth rate). This tremendous industry expansion is being boosted by governments around the world that are implementing battery recycling.
Managing the growing volume of lithium-ion batteries once they reach end-of-life requires planning and coordination, as well as major investments. Recycling these batteries can be problematic. Improper handling can result in the batteries overheating, catching fire, and exploding. Many different battery chemistries and forms are being produced, creating a complex waste stream that can be complicated and dangerous to disassemble.
Researchers are developing new and innovative recycling technologies and practices. These promise to make separating and recovering valuable metals, as well as building better batteries, more efficient and economical. A decade or so down the road, these improvements will be valuable as the electrification transformation gains traction. Something we all need to practice: recycling expired batteries!
RELATED BLOG POSTS – I’ve written several posts about lithium and other battery metals in past years. To find these, write “lithium” or other key words in the Search box of the Blog section of my website.
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