Why is lithium-ion battery recycling still limited?


Creator: UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering – David Baillot  

Copyright: CC 3.0 – Jacobs School of Engineering, UC San Diego

Market analysts predict that 705,000 tons of lithium-ion batteries will reach end-of-life by 2025. With batteries growing to be a staple in a future of clean energy, this number is set to grow exponentially, potentially reaching 9 million tons per year by 2040. Despite the increasing battery waste, the battery recycling rate is considerably low — it is currently estimated to only be 5%.

Why is the rate of lithium-ion battery recycling so low?

Even though long-term environmental and economic considerations incentivize battery recycling, lithium-ion battery recycling is still relatively young and underdeveloped. There are multiple reasons why the practice has yet to take off:

  • Cheaper Raw Materials

Although recycled materials just are as usable as newly mined ones, the price of raw materials can sometimes be cheaper than recycled materials. Cobalt is one example. If the price of fresh cobalt is cheaper, recyclers would not be able to compete and the recycling business would not be economically viable. The possibility of new chemistries emerging also threatens the recycling business. For instance, if cobalt is fully edged out of batteries, recyclers would have no incentive to extract it from battery waste. If other battery chemistries that use a different combination of materials become more popular than lithium-ion, there would also be less incentive to retrieve materials in discarded batteries.

  • Complex chemistries 

The different mixtures of materials also complicates battery recycling. Even though all li-ion batteries contain lithium, other components may vary. Different batteries may contain metals like nickel, cobalt, iron, aluminium and more. With constantly shifting battery chemistries, creating an efficient extraction process is challenging, as they need to be adapted to each material that will be recovered. In turn, this would also raise the cost of recycling and make it less profitable. 

  • Difficult processes

The structure of lithium-ion batteries also places another obstacle in front of efficient recycling. The components of a battery cell — cathode, anode, separator, electrolyte — are usually tightly wound or stacked together, and are not designed to be easily disassembled. There are also different cell designs and configurations. Larger battery packs, such as those for electric vehicles can contain thousands of these cells, further complicating the process. Each cell design would require a different disassembling processes and scales of operation, once again making it challenging to arrange a universally efficient and effective recycling process.

The benefits of battery recycling

In spite of these challenges, battery recycling is still a worthy venture. Environmentally, proper battery waste handling can prevent toxic battery materials from leaking into the ground in landfills and polluting the ground and water. Moreover, improper disposal of batteries can cause fires and explosions at landfills and waste management facilities. Damaged batteries can trigger thermal runaway events, which can be hazardous. 

Moreover, increasing the supply of recycled metals could reduce the need to mine, also slowing down the depletion of materials. It would be more sustainable in the long run to include recycled materials into the supply chain in order to maintain a stable supply of battery components. Recycling batteries also reduce dependence on foreign sources of materials, lowering the cost of batteries as well as EVs and other devices. 

As batteries become more and more prevalent in everyday life, from household products to energy storage, battery waste should be properly handled and taken care of. Governments are working to increase incentives for battery recycling, to create more sustainable supply chains and reduce the environmental impact of increasing battery use. Private companies and industries are also finding innovative ways to make battery recycling more accessible through lower costs and streamlining.  

Learn more about how Arbin helps customers on the forefront of battery research.

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