Innovations in End of Life Lithium-Ion Battery Disposal & Recycling

The news recently came out that a tech firm came up with a new lithium-ion battery that has a smaller battery footprint. It replaces the graphite in the anodes with silicon. It holds more energy. In fact, when used in a fitness tracker, the battery’s energy density was approximately 20% greater.

Right now, the new silicon-anode batteries are in wearable fitness trackers. The company that developed them has partnerships in place with BMW and Daimler. While technology surrounding the production of lithium-ion batteries continues, are there any innovations in end-of-life lithium-ion battery disposal and recycling?

To make a lithium-ion battery, the components have to be mined and refined. Cathodes are built, and the batteries are manufactured. When those batteries no longer hold a charge, they have to be recycled to reclaim as many metals and plastics as possible. That allows them to be used again to make new batteries. 

People often believe it’s not a cost-effective process. The truth is, with innovations in both manufacturing and recycling, lithium-ion batteries are a cost-effective battery to produce and to recycle. It all comes down to changes in technology.

There’s a more important reason to focus attention on end-of-life battery recycling. Experts believe that stores of cobalt and lithium will be limited starting in 2024. Nickel stores are expected to be okay through 2025, but at some point, those stores could also begin to diminish. Advancements in battery manufacturing and a focus on recycling those precious materials are essential steps in production.

The U.S. Department teamed up with the National Electrical Manufacturers Association to create recycling standards for lithium-ion batteries. Once these recycling standards are in place, end-of-life battery disposal and recycling get to take center stage. In the meantime, many companies and organizations are already working hard to change the lithium-ion battery game.

A Breakthrough at the Department of Energy

Currently, the metals in spent lithium-ion batteries are not low-value because there are different oxides. You have a variety like lithium cobalt, lithium nickel manganese cobalt, lithium nickel cobalt aluminum, lithium iron phosphate. Battery manufacturers look for pure metals. Quality is important. The Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory discovered a cost-effective way to recycle lithium-ion batteries. It’s not easy.

What the DOE found was that froth flotation can separate the materials. How does froth flotation work? The spent batteries’ oxides go into flotation tanks, and air is pumped in with the mixers helping to get the solution frothy. Cathode materials typically sink to the bottom after absorbing water. In this case, they found the addition of a chemical additive that prevented the absorption of water caused the lithium nickel manganese cobalt oxide to float. That left the lithium manganese oxide to sink.

After separation, they tested the cathode materials. They had purity levels of over 95%. Thanks to this discovery, it increases the odds of battery manufacturers purchasing recycled over newly mined.

Batteries Made From Recycled Materials Perform Better

A Worcester Polytechnic Institute study found that batteries made from recycled materials perform better. In this study by Professor Yan Wang, the recycled cathode powder was tested and compared to the new powder. The recycled materials all lasted more than 50% longer.

The powder made from new cathode powder was down to 70% capacity after 7,600 cycles. For the recycled cathode powder, it had 11,600 cycles before it was down to 70% capacity. In this study, recycled batteries proved to be the best option.

An English Study Finds Separating and Shredding Batteries Is Cost-Effective

At the University of Birmingham, the team has been working on new ways to recycle lithium-ion batteries. They found the most cost-effective method was to shred the batteries, put the components through a chemical separation, and then separate and recycle the separated materials. While a furnace process only recovers 70% of the battery components, the university’s method recovers 90%.

Could Ultrasonic Waves Help?

Meanwhile, The Faraday Institution in Leicester has been testing the use of ultrasonic waves to separate the materials in electrodes. The team disassembled the lithium-ion batteries instead of shredding them. They were then exposed to ultrasonic waves, which led to an 80% recovery rate.

What Are Lithium-Ion Batteries Used For?

What devices are lithium-ion batteries found in? They’re used in everything from smartphones to laptops, cars to wearable health and fitness trackers. A general rule is that if it’s rechargeable, it’s likely a lithium-ion battery.

In the past year or two, the demand for all-electric vehicles (EVs) from companies like GM, Nissan, Rivan, Tesla, and Volkswagen has increased. With that has come drastic price increases in cobalt and lithium. According to a Forbes report, cobalt prices neared a 70% increase in 2020 while lithium prices were up 127%.

According to Pew Research, there are currently 1.8 million EVs registered in the U.S. A lithium-ion battery’s life span for a car is about 10 to 20 years. Most EV manufacturers provide 65,000 or 100,000-mile/8-year warranties. Kia increases their warranty to 100,000 miles/10-year. Hyundai offers lifetime warranties.

Hotter climates tend to wear batteries faster than colder climates. Using fast chargers also heats up these batteries and can shorten their life. No matter how it works out, most batteries need replacing within 20 years, which means hundreds of thousands of these batteries end up needing recycling.

Vehicle batteries tend to have the greatest estimated life. Smaller devices like laptops, gaming controllers, and rechargeable earbuds usually only last for 500 charges, which is around two or three years. At that point, they need to be recycled responsibly. Where do you turn when you need to recycle these batteries?

Choose a Responsible E-Waste Recycling Company

You cannot trash your lithium-ion batteries. While some people still toss them into the garbage, hazardous materials now travel to area landfills. If the battery pack ruptures while en route, it can lead to fires that require the garbage truck’s operator to dump the burning load onto the street or parking lot. Not only does this pollute the environment, but it can also lead to road closures and truck replacements.

Instead, recycle batteries responsibly with a battery recycling firm that is e-Steward, NAID, and R2 certified. This means all recycling steps are in accordance with laws, focus on the safety of the employees, and get processed in the U.S. and never get sent overseas. If your lithium-ion battery is in a device like a laptop or a smartphone, your data is destroyed to prevent theft.

ERI specializes in lithium-ion battery recycling. We can pick up batteries at our client’s location, leave battery bins in retailers, apartment complexes, and office buildings for recycling. We offer battery recycling boxes that you can fill on your own and ship to us using a postage-paid label. We’ll transport them back to one of our facilities for battery recycling. If your company needs to process batteries involved in a safety recall, we help with that, too.

All of ERI’s battery recycling experts are specially trained in the storage and handling of lithium-ion batteries. We process batteries in the U.S. and do not send them out of the country. All of the batteries we collect for recycling are recycled per state and federal laws. Learn more about our dry cell and lithium-ion battery recycling program today.