Can we recycle lithium batteries?

Limited lithium resources

Current lithium deposit estimates are sufficient to meet growing demand for lithium-ion battery production critical to the transition to renewable energies and electric vehicles. However, the overall impacts of lithium mining and other battery minerals, as well as low lithium production makes it desirable to make the industry more efficient and sustainable. New technologies are emerging to make lithium extraction and lithium-ion batteries more sustainable and efficient, such as EnergyX’s LiTAS™ and SoLiS™ – but an industry capable of creating circularity within the system is recycling.

Research, development & innovation

All sectors involved within the clean energy and transport transition are undergoing breakthroughs as each industry sees more investments into research, development and innovation throughout their supply chains. Evidenced in Scientific American by Jordan Wilkerson, the recycling sector is making major inroads towards establishing a pathway to circularity, “A new research published in Joule has hit upon what experts describe as a more elegant recycling method that refurbishes the cathode—the carefully crafted crystal that is the lithium-ion battery’s most expensive component and key to supplying the proper voltage. The researchers found that batteries they made with their new cathode-recycling technique perform just as well as those with a cathode made from scratch.”

New research is pushing the boundaries of science and technology while also having an outsized impact on the global transition to low-carbon alternatives. “Electric vehicles may prove to be a valuable secondary resource for critical materials. Careful husbandry of the resources consumed by electric-vehicle battery manufacturing—and recycling—surely hold the key to the sustainability of the future automotive industry,” notes a 2019 study published in Nature led by Gavin Harper. These new innovative developments also highlight the importance of technologies capable of improving the current methodologies. By combining effective recycling with improvement across the lithium industry from brine to battery, it will ensure that we limit the environmental impact of the sector in addition to greatly improving the overall life-cycle of lithium.

Lithium recycling outlook

The still nascent transition to low-carbon and limited established lithium infrastructure means that the lithium recycling industry is small but generating a lot of interest and investments. This sector is certain to grow, especially as battery manufacturers seek to solidify their role in the supply chain and national governments consolidate their own capacities. If technologies like those discussed in Scientific American continue to develop at-scale then recycling lithium-ion batteries will become a default within the industry, and we will likely see competition for recycled materials in similar ways as we do now for raw resources.

“Elements and materials contained in electric-vehicle batteries are not available in many nations and access to resources is crucial in ensuring a stable supply chain,” explain Harper and other researchers, “In the future, electric vehicles may prove to be a valuable secondary resource for critical materials, and it has been argued that high-cobalt-content batteries should be recycled immediately to bolster cobalt supplies6. If tens of millions of electric vehicles are to be produced annually, careful husbandry of the resources consumed by electric-vehicle battery manufacturing will surely be essential to ensure the sustainability of the automotive industry of the future.”

A circular lithium supply chain

Stakeholders across all industries and sectors are transitioning to a future that will rely almost exclusively on lithium. As a result, there has been a shift to modernize lithium mining and associated supply chains. One of the key areas of interest has always been recycling, but until now, limitations in terms of available technology, research and infrastructure has always made the end-life of lithium-ion batteries. Throughout various industries, innovation has led to breakthroughs that ensure some level of circularity within the sector. From brine to battery to recycling, there are solutions at every level to ensure sustainability.