Lithium-ion batteries are in so many items today. The rechargeable batteries in your laptop, your electric lawnmower, your robotic vacuum, your smartphone, your wireless earbuds, and even your electric vehicle contain lithium-ion batteries. They’re in your digital cameras, 

Every time you use the battery and recharge it, it is slowly and continuously losing the ability to fully recharge. A process known as solid-electrolyte interphase reduces the amount of lithium over time, plus draining a battery to the point it’s dead leaves some lithium stranded in the cathode. As these issues continue, a battery’s power diminishes.

That’s why you’ll find after several years that you’re charging your older electronics’ batteries or leaving items plugged in all of the time to have enough power to use them. Experts believe it’s possible to get up to 200,000 miles from an EV battery pack.  At this point, the lithium-ion battery should be recycled. How does a lithium-ion battery get recycled?

How Does a Lithium-Ion Battery Work?

Lithium-ion batteries are made up of thin layers of several metals that are pressed together and folded to form a small battery pack. A lithium-ion battery has a positive and negative terminal, just as you’d find in any battery. The positive side is your cathode, while the negative side is the anode.

Lithium is an element that’s stored between layers of graphite in the copper anode. Cobalt is found in the aluminum cathode. Lithium likes to shed its ions regularly, so they get stored in the graphite to pass through an electrolyte solution and semipermeable separator where they go into the cathode and mix with cobalt to balance the charge build-up and create the power that runs your electronic device. 

When the battery is no longer fully charged, plugging it in sends the lithium back from the cathode to the anode to restart the process. These layers are folded and topped with the battery circuitry that’s designed to prevent batteries from overcharging and exploding or causing fires.

So, How Do They Get Recycled?

Lithium-ion batteries are filled with materials that can be reused again and again to make new batteries. It keeps the materials like copper, cobalt, nickel, and lithium from needing to be mined from the earth. How does this process work?

Here’s a basic scenario. You have Jack, the owner of a restaurant, who is upgrading his table menu tablets. Those tablets no longer hold a charge, so he’s sending them for recycling. He restores them to factory settings and finds an e-waste recycling company that offers data destruction. He packages them up, arranges transportation, and hands the box to the shipper.

After arriving at the e-waste facility, the tablet cases are removed to extract the lithium-ion batteries. Tablets get destroyed to completely shred the data and start that e-recycling process. Batteries are soaked in brine to neutralize them and put into grinders to start the battery recycling process that takes several stages.

Jack’s project starts by finding an e-waste recycling company that recycles Li-ion batteries. Ideally, you want to choose a company that processes them in the U.S. and doesn’t send them to other countries where they may end up in the groundwater and soil. After that, his tablets go through these steps.

Discharge remaining electricity

Before anything happens, you have to discharge any remaining electricity. This often means soaking the battery packs in a brine solution to discharge that energy. You can also connect them to a close-circuit resistor to discharge them, use cryogenics, or thermal processing. There are pros and cons to each option. 

A brine solution is cheap, but the resulting brine solution must then be treated to remove waste. Cryogenics is safe, but it’s expensive. Electrical discharging is considered beneficial as you can recover some energy, but it’s hard to gauge how much. Thermal processing is efficient, but you can’t save the electrolyte with this process.

Grind up the battery packs

The second step is to shred the battery packs into small granules of plastic, metals like aluminum and steel, and the variety of metals known as “black mass.” The black mass contains materials like carbon, cobalt, graphite, lithium, manganese, and nickel. As the particles become small enough, they pass through the shredders to the conveyors. The electrolyte is removed, often using a wet comminution process, but that solution has to be treated to remove waste. 

Separate the battery components and process the black mass

Once these steps are done, the separation process begins. Materials are separated using water (plastic floats) and/or magnets to separate the different types of metals. The black mass has to be processed to separate those methods. These metals are further separated through processes like pyrometallurgy (heat) or hydrometallurgy (liquid solutions) so that copper is in a barrel by itself, and the same is true of cobalt, and nickel.

The exact process used may vary from one country to another and from one battery recycling company to another. Much of it comes down to budget, equipment, and area pollution laws. For example, pyrometallurgy produces a lot of air pollution, so filtration systems are required before the fumes exit the plant through air ducts. Plants using aqueous solutions must be prepared to treat that industrial wastewater.

Package and ship out barrels of recycled metals

After separating all of these different metals, the barrels are sealed and prepared for shipping. They’re processed and returned to manufacturers for raw materials. This is an essential step. Cobalt mining is one area where concerns involving child labor and exploitative practices have been pointed out. Companies are moving away from cobalt due to this need to find ethically-sourced materials in batteries.

By recycling metals, it eliminates the need to mine new materials. It keeps metals out of landfills where the toxins leach into the groundwater and cause harm to area residents. It becomes a win-win process that continually develops to find safer, faster, and more cost-effective ways for battery recycling.

Find a Responsible Battery Recycling Provider

What can you do to ensure your batteries are recycled and not sent to another country where they end up in landfills and leak into lakes and rivers? How do you make sure your batteries go to a facility that specializes in lithium-ion battery recycling?

Start by checking a company’s certifications. NAID, R2, and e-Stewards are three certificates to look for. These companies undergo scrutiny through surprise plant inspections and audits to ensure they’re doing everything they promise, such as processing e-waste responsibly by keeping a close eye on the environment, keeping their employees safe, and never sending e-waste to other countries.

Consumers can drop off electronics at Staples, Best Buy, and other participating retailers to ensure their lithium-ion devices are properly recycled. Those stores send the electronics to ERI for responsible, secure recycling. Businesses can talk to ERI about battery recycling boxes that allow batteries to be contained in a large box and shipped through a traceable method for recycling at one of ERI’s U.S. facilities. 

When you recycle electronics with ERI, they’re tested and wiped of data. If there’s any life left on your device, it’s smarter to refurbish it for someone else to use. With many people upgrading to newer phones every year or two, these devices still have value to others. Partner with ERI to recycle lithium-ion batteries and electronics and ensure raw materials are reused as much as possible.