|As the popularity of electric cars begins to explode, so too are the piles of used lithium-ion batteries that used to power these cars. Industry analysts predict that by 2020, China alone will produce about 500,000 tons of used lithium-ion batteries, and by 2030, the world will reach 2 million tons per year.
If the current trend to dispose of these used batteries remains the same, even if lithium-ion batteries can be recycled, most of these batteries could end up in landfills. These popular power boxes contain valuable metals and other materials that can be recycled, processed, and reused. But recycling is rarely done today. For example, according to Naomi J. Boxall, an environmental scientist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), in Australia, only 2-3% of lithium-ion batteries are collected and sent overseas for recycling. Recovery rates (less than 5%) in the European Union and the United States are not much higher.
“There are many reasons why recycling lithium-ion batteries is not generally accepted,” said Linda L. Gaines of Argonne National Laboratory. Gaines, an expert in materials and life-cycle analysis, said reasons include technical constraints, economic barriers, logistics issues, and regulatory gaps.
Among many types of rechargeable batteries, lithium-ion batteries are the most popular because they provide more energy than other types of rechargeable batteries. They also have much better charge retention capabilities than older batteries such as nickel-metal hydride batteries. Thanks to their convenience and charging capabilities, lithium rechargeable batteries seem to be here to stay!
So, what should be done once the lithium-ion battery is processed?
Can I throw away the lithium-ion battery?
Although you can throw disposable non-rechargeable batteries in the trash, do not use lithium-ion batteries. These batteries contain toxic substances that if placed in a landfill will endanger our health and the environment. When you dispose of a lithium-ion battery, you need to take it to a trusted recycling center.
Can lithium-ion batteries be recycled?
Yes, but not in a regular blue recycling bin. The contents of lithium-ion batteries are less toxic than most other types of batteries, which makes them easier to recycle. However, lithium is a highly reactive element. These batteries have flammable electrolytes and pressurized contents that can cause them to explode.
This is especially dangerous when the lithium-ion battery is parked at the rear of a dry-recycling truck surrounded by paper and cardboard. Stress or heat, especially in summer, can cause sparks and fire. In fact, lithium-ion batteries are one of the most common ignition agents in recycling trucks!
Benefits of recycling
Battery experts and environmentalists provide many reasons to recycle lithium-ion batteries. Recycled materials can be used to make new batteries, reducing manufacturing costs. Currently, these materials account for more than half of battery costs. In recent years, the prices of the two most common cathode metals, cobalt and nickel, the most expensive components, have fluctuated significantly. The current market prices for cobalt and nickel are approximately $ 27,500 per metric ton and $ 12,600 per metric ton, respectively. In 2018, the price of cobalt exceeded $ 90,000 per metric ton.
In many types of lithium-ion batteries, the concentrations of these metals, as well as lithium and manganese, exceed those found in natural ores, making used batteries similar to highly concentrated ores. If these metals can be recovered from used batteries at greater cost and economics than natural ore, the price of batteries and electric vehicles should drop.
In addition to potential economic benefits, recycling can also reduce the amount of material entering the landfill. Sun Zhi, a pollution control expert at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said that the cobalt, nickel, manganese and other metals found in the battery could easily leak out of the battery’s casing, pollute the soil and groundwater, and threaten ecosystems and human health. The same is true for solutions of lithium fluoride salts (usually LiPF 6) in organic solvents used in battery electrolytes.
Not only do batteries have a negative impact on end of life, they can also have a negative impact before the battery is manufactured. As Gaines of Argonne pointed out, more recycling means less extraction of raw materials and less associated environmental hazards. For example, mining requires metal to process metal sulfide ore for some batteries, which is energy intensive and emits SO X, which can cause acid rain.
Reducing dependence on battery material mining may also slow down the consumption of these raw materials. Gaines and Argonne colleagues used computational methods to study this issue to simulate how growing battery production could affect the geological reserves of many metals by 2050. Researchers recognize these predictions as “complex and uncertain”, and researchers have found that world reserves of lithium and nickel are sufficient to sustain rapid growth in battery production. But battery manufacturing could reduce global cobalt reserves by more than 10%.
Recycling lithium-ion batteries materials is the key to the development of electric transportation
Limited availability and the environmental impact of mining means that recycling these scarce elements for battery manufacturing is critical to reducing the environmental impact of battery use throughout the life cycle.
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