Battery producers must be recycling experts – BRINK – Conversations and Insights on Global Business

Due to the growth in demand for electric vehicles, lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) are experiencing strong demand which is expected to reach three to four million metric tons by 2030. LIBs have become the most widely accepted energy storage technology due to their high efficiency, long lifetime and high energy density.

But their growth is impacted by two major problems that will increase in the short term: how to meet this demand in the face of the depletion of precious metals such as lithium, nickel and cobalt necessary for the manufacture of LIBs, and how to cope to the huge amount of battery waste produced when LIBs reach their end of life.

The high demand for LIB is attracting the attention of regulators looking to ensure fair competition, support a circular economy, and reduce environmental and social impacts at all stages of the battery life cycle.

European Union

The EU is developing ambitious sustainability targets imposing strict requirements for the end-of-life management of LIBs for electric vehicles and obligations for operators along the value chain regarding the sourcing and use of materials recycled for LIBs.

In 2006, the EU enacted the Battery Directive 2006/66/EC making producers of batteries and other products that incorporate a battery responsible for the management of waste from the batteries they place on the market, in particular financing collection and recycling programs.

The EU is now seeking to repeal this directive and amend Regulation (EU) No 2019/1020 with a new regulatory framework for batteries setting durability requirements. This will impose strict requirements for the end-of-life management of LIBs for electric vehicles and will include obligations for operators sourcing raw materials. The new project foresees that by 2027, producers must use recycled metal contents of LIBs for the production of new batteries and must submit a declaration of their recycled cobalt, lead, lithium and nickel content.

Strict recycling requirements

The EU has set an ambitious target of 70% LIB recycling by 2030, with the aim of recovering 70% of lithium and 95% of nickel, copper and cobalt in end-of-life batteries. Provisions for recycled materials to be used in new batteries are set at 4% for lithium and nickel and 12% for cobalt by 2030.

EU battery recycling targets

Source: PreScouter

Member States such as Germany, France and Italy have also developed their own legal instruments for LIB recycling:

  • Germany BattG-2 demands that the collection, treatment and recycling of all batteries used to power EVs are the responsibility of their producers.
  • Francewith a similar policy framework, requires producers to bear the costs of collecting, treating and recycling LIB waste.
  • Italy obliges producers to organize and finance the collection, treatment and recycling of waste batteries and to record the type and number of batteries and accumulators placed on the national market each year, as well as the methods used for their disposal and their elimination.

UK

The UK Waste Batteries and Accumulators Regulations detail the process for handling and taking back industrial batteries, with producers/manufacturers being financially responsible for collection and recycling.

The UK’s national standards body has published PAS 7061, which sets out best practice for handling electric vehicle batteries without introducing environmental hazards from material sourcing, manufacture, use and disposal. elimination.

It is expected that by 2040, 70% of all vehicles sold in Europe will be electric, reaching a total of 1,200 gigawatt hours per year. But recycling LIBs is not yet common practice.

China

China has begun to make significant efforts to implement LIB policy management. The Interim Measures for the Management of Electric Battery Recovery and New Energy Vehicle Use (2018) makes automakers responsible for electric vehicle battery recovery and full life cycle management of LIBs.

Managing the traceability of electric battery recovery and the use of new energy vehicles (2018) requires traceability management throughout the Chinese value chain, from battery production to sale, to use, disposal and recovery.

In the EU, lithium demand will be 59,577 metric tons by 2030, of which about 2,799 metric tons will have to come from recycled sources, according to the EU battery directive. To reach the 4% goal, taking the Tesla Model 3 as an example, the equivalent of 572,078 Tesla Model 3 batteries will need to be recycled by 2030.

This raises two fundamental questions: will there be enough end-of-life LIBs to be recycled by 2030 to meet the 4% requirement, and will there be sufficient battery recycling infrastructure to support these Goals ?

LIB recycling methods

There are currently three processes for recycling used LIBs, and their applications depend on the suite of components that need to be recycled.

  1. The pyrometallurgical process requires the use of high temperature furnaces to melt the LIBs. However, this process generates metal alloys, slag and volatile gases.
  2. The hydrometallurgical process requires mechanical pre-treatment of the LIBs. The components are then separated into fluxes by density, magnetism and/or chemically. Cathodic materials can be recovered by solvent extraction and precipitation; metals in the form of sulfates, oxalates, carbonates and hydroxides can be recovered using reagents. This process is very effective in recovering cobalt and nickel.
  3. The direct recycling process maintains the chemical structure of the cathode and avoids complex purification steps. The repetitive recycling process promotes the low flexibility of LIB components, which can affect their long-term chemical nature. In theory, this process can help recover all LIB components.

New, less expensive and more environmentally friendly processes are in the early stages of development. The ultrasonic delamination technique claims to recover around 80% of the original material in a purer state and is 100 times faster, according to the University of Leicester and Birmingham in the UK. Another method proposes that batteries can be degradable, non-toxic and recyclable, according to Texas A&M University in the US A new ultrasonic method can enable faster and more sustainable battery recycling, cutting extraction time by 50 % and achieving 97% metal ion recovery on average, according to the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden. Finally, biological leaching, or biomining – widely used in the mining industry – offers the possibility of selective separation of metals from battery leachate to a purity that allows its reuse, according to Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

The future of the recycling market

It is expected that by 2040, 70% of all vehicles sold in Europe will be electric, reaching a total of 1,200 gigawatt hours per year. But recycling LIBs is not yet common practice. Technical limitations, economic brakes, logistical problems and, no doubt, regulatory shortcomings are still challenges to be faced.

In addition, LIB recycling must deal with the variability of material prices. For example, a drop in the price of mined cobalt can make it cheaper than buying recycled cobalt. Finally, a potential investment in the recycling of LIBs requires taking into account the capacities of these batteries to compete with propulsion systems that operate with greener technologies such as hydrogen fuel cells.

In summary, several factors – recycling methods, regulatory loopholes, new green energy technology – come into play to provide a clear perspective on whether the LIB’s recycling goals can be met in the short and long term.