During the next few years, the demand for raw materials needed for the production of lithium-ion EV batteries – including lithium, nickel, manganese and cobalt – is expected to soar. According to recent estimates, 109 million EVs – all equipped with battery packs – will roll off the world’s production lines by 2030. The raw materials needed to produce them will increasingly have to be sourced from recycling. Scarcity, high raw-material prices, geopolitical independence and sustainability (mining is both energy-intensive and polluting) will push the market further towards recycling, as will more-stringent legislation and regulations for the reuse of materials and minimum recycling percentages. After 2035, China’s Botree Recycling expects battery recycling to be just as important a link in the production chain as primary mining. But a lot needs to happen before then.
#1 Uncertain supply from recycling
It will be many years before the substantial growth in the number of EVs currently being produced is reflected in end-of-life EVs becoming available for recycling. The first generation of battery-powered hybrid vehicles entered the market nearly 10 years ago, for example, but so far few of their batteries have been recycled. In 2021, some 117,000kg of drive batteries were collected in the Netherlands. Given that a drive battery weighs an average of 450kg, this translates to the batteries of just 260 EVs. That is a mere fraction of the more-than 300,000 EVs in the Netherlands. Lee Butler of Glencore, a large Swiss supplier and recycler of natural resources that include copper, nickel and zinc, reckons that there is much uncertainty about the future supply of (electric) end-of-life vehicles (ELVs). Speaking at the recent International Automotive Recycling Congress (IARC), he insisted that, currently, the main source for recycling is residual material from the production of battery packs. It will be the end of the decade before we can also count on end-of-life materials. The demand for EV batteries seems to be quickly outstripping the supply of ELVs, but by exactly how much is uncertain. “And that uncertainty is making it difficult for recycling companies that want to make the necessary investments.”
“The big question is whether there will still be enough raw materials left in battery cells to make recycling viable”
#2 Battery composition is changing
Raw-material prices, scarcity, technological progress and sustainability issues are making battery manufacturers seek alternative sources of raw materials. There has been a shift towards cobalt- and nickel-free batteries, for example. Research carried out by Glencore has shown that the cathode mix of a battery pack changes year-on-year. “The big question,” says Butler, “is whether there will still be enough raw materials left in battery cells to make recycling viable.” And should the results of a future cost-benefit analysis for recycling turn out to be negative, he thinks a financial contribution (from the government, car manufacturers or even consumers) could offer a solution.
#3 Innovation in processing options is ongoing
The degree to which battery recycling will be cost-effective in future also depends on the processing options. Let’s not forget that batteries can be processed in different ways, each with its own cost and recycling yield. For example, there is shredding (pulverisation), mechanical separation, pyrolysis (heating), pyrometallurgy and hydrometallurgy, all processing methods that may or may not be combined with one another (or even skipped completely). There is also a lot of discussion in the industry about how processing should be approached, adds Butler. Can you put batteries directly in the oven, for example, or is some form of pre-processing necessary? And then there’s the role that could be played by automated dismantling.
The fact that Norwegian pioneer Batteriretur Høyenergi has cut battery-recycling costs by two thirds over the past few years is irrefutable proof that there is a lot to be gained. While pyrometallurgy is still acknowledged as the go-to method for battery recycling, the emerging hydrometallurgy is showing a lot of promise. “Currently, we recover over 70 per cent of raw materials from batteries, but with new technologies this could in future be ramped up to 90 per cent,” says Janet Kes, Batteries Manager at ARN. Direct recycling is also making its presence felt. This is a method in which the working cathode particles of the battery are recovered without the need for complicated additional processes and steps. It became evident during the IARC that Botree is a forerunner in this. “Compared to traditional separation methods, our technique calls for a 30 per cent lower investment, uses 10 per cent less energy and delivers a recycling yield that is between 5 and 20 per cent higher,” said guest speaker Xiao Lin of Botree.
“Currently, we recover over 70 per cent of raw materials from batteries, but with new technologies this could in future be ramped up to 90 per cent”
#4 More stringent regulations – but uncertainty remains
There’s no doubt that legislation and regulations governing battery recycling are becoming increasingly stringent. By 2025, at least 65 per cent of used lithium batteries must be recycled, increasing to 70 per cent in five years. And from 2050, a new EV battery must consist of no less than 40 per cent recycled materials, rising to 55 per cent from 2070 if the EU gets its way. But despite all this there remains a substantial element of uncertainty, cautions Lee Butler. “Before making any investments, the relevant policy needs to be as definite as possible,” he reasons.
#5 More end-of-life batteries call for more safety measures
According to Lee Butler, the number of fires in battery-processing centres has increased significantly during the past few years. There were over 60 known cases in the US in 2019 and 2020, many more than in the preceding years. This increase has everything to do with the growing number of (EV) batteries being processed by these companies, a trend that will continue to rise quickly during the years ahead. EV-battery-processing centres will therefore have to prepare for the risks associated with lithium-ion batteries that are full of flammable electrolyte. Johan van Peperzeel of the collector of end-of-life batteries of the same name is only too aware of the dangers. “Waste batteries constitute a potential risk, so you don’t want to expose them in the open. When batteries arrive with us, they are placed in a container equipped with an extinguishing system and automatic reporting to the fire brigade.” In this way Van Peperzeel is ahead of the curve regarding the upcoming PSG-37 on the storage of lithium-containing energy carriers.
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