Lithium Battery Recycling

Lithium batteries are disposable primary batteries that have lithium metal or lithium compounds  as an anode. Depending on the design and chemical compounds used, lithium cells can produce voltages from 1.5 V to about 3.7 V, over twice the voltage of an ordinary zinc-carbon battery or alkaline cell battery. Lithium batteries are smaller, lighter and offer more energy and power potential and are found in many electronics like laptops, digital cameras, power tools and cordless phones.

Lithium Battery recycling is the process of recovery of lithium products and other useful metals from worn-out Lithium batteries. 

Pain point

There are many reasons to recycle Lithium batteries rather than throw them away where they may end up in a regular landfill. Exposure to the elements in these batteries can lead to respiratory problems and, in some cases, skin rashes. In many states, it is illegal to throw away lithium ion batteries. This is because they enter the solid waste stream and contaminate soil and water. In addition, if this kind of battery is subjected to high temperatures, it may explode.

How is it solved?

Currently, there is no real economic reason to recycle the lithium batteries, but as more people take up Electric Vehicles, the situation appears to change. It is analyzed to occur from 2016, when a significant number of EV batteries will be sent as waste. The need for Li-ion to be recycled is also found to be important for manufacturers who make claims of having clean, green cars.

Market size and growth

The Lithium-Ion battery market is poised to play a major role in the emerging "cleantech" economy. Lithium-Ion technology has seen a rare convergence of support from the business community, political leaders, researchers, and investors in the US, China, EU, as well as the other major industrial countries. It is thought to be so crucial to the future economy that in the US, President Obama, called the creation of domestic manufacturing capacity of Lithium-Ion batteries a "national security issue." In an unprecedented move, the US invested over $1.5 billion in research and manufacturing. China is also in the process of spending billions to develop this market and the Europeans are beginning to turn the corner and invest heavily in this segment as well.

The electric vehicle (EV) Li-ion battery recycling market is expected to be worth more than $2 billion only by 2022, with more than half a million end-of-life electric vehicles’ battery packs becoming available for recycling through the waste stream

In 2010, the market demand for lithium carbonate, used as a battery material, is in balance at 30 million pounds per year. Global lithium carbonate supply was about 100,000 tonnes in 2008, up 2,000 tonnes from 2007, while consumption was a little higher at 105,000 tonnes -- up 2% year-on-year. With the rapid increase in the adoption of portable consumer electronic goods and their associated rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, battery recycling can reduce reliance on import or production of lithium.

Market segment

There’s currently little market for lithium battery recycling, with most consumer electronic devices using very small lithium batteries today. It’s also not currently an expensive metal, selling only for a few dollars.

The prominent end user for this technology is found to be the automotive industries. As the industry migrates to lithium technology, its recycling is likely to become more favorable and present new business opportunities. It was also predicted that there are recycling opportunities for nickel and cobalt metals, which are used in lithium batteries.

It is evident that the Lithium-powered batteries will dominate the electric cars industry within the next 5-10 years due to the metal's high-energy density and as auto makers strive to meet CO2 emissions standards. For the reuse, Li-ion batteries will have to compete with dedicated batteries such as stationary grid storage. 

How far is it from commercialization? 

Lithium prices are relatively low and the cost of recycling a battery significantly higher than the sum value of its components, the infrastructure and conditions required to ensure widespread lithium ion battery recycling are still far from established.

Currently, there is little economic sense to recycle lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries. Batteries contain only a small fraction of lithium carbonate as a percent of weight and are inexpensive compared to cobalt or nickel. However, if the number of electric vehicles (EVs) and their associated battery packs increase in the long term, recycling and reuse will help validate the tag, ‘green car’. 

Electric vehicle battery recycling will become a significant part of the value chain by 2016, when significant quantities of EV batteries will come through the waste stream for recycling. 

Competition Scenario

The market is nascent such that only a few companies are in the business, which are being discussed here. California based battery recycler, Toxco was granted $9.5 million by the U.S. Department of Energy to construct what is expected to be America’s first lithium battery recycling plant. Toxco’s existing lithium battery recycling operation is in British Columbia.

Tesla Motors are already recycling lithium ion batteries with Toxco. Tesla has advertised its battery pack to last seven years or 100,000 miles under normal use. Belgium’s Umicore is recycling a limited number of lithium ion batteries at a plant in Sweden on a pilot basis. And two Japanese companies, Nippon Mining & Metals and GS Yuasa, plan to start collecting lithium ion batteries from scrapped hybrid and electric vehicles to recycle their aluminum.

Johnson Controls, one of the lead acid battery producers, started making lithium batteries for hybrids and has received government funding to produce nickel-cobalt-metal battery cells and packs. Johnson Controls hasn’t decided yet whether it would recycle lithium batteries in-house as the market grows, or whether it would outsource to companies such as Toxco.

Dowa Holdings Co has turned collecting and recycling the rare metals in lithium-ion batteries into a business for the first time in Japan. Dowa Eco-System Co collects used batteries from battery makers and automakers as well as scraps produced from the battery manufacturing process, recover such rare metals as cobalt, nickel and lithium and sells them to specialized companies. The Tokyo-based subsidiary of the nonferrous metals maker has a capacity of processing over 1,000 tons of used lithium-ion batteries annually. It aims to capitalize on an expected increase in demand for lithium-ion batteries, which are currently used in mobile phones, other electrical home appliances and hybrid vehicles.

Sony and Sumitomo Metal in Japan, among other recycling companies, have developed technology to retrieve cobalt and other precious metals from spent lithium‑ ion batteries

Challenges ahead 

Though lithium is 100 per cent recyclable, the battery-grade lithium from the recycling process is costlier than lithium from direct sources. Lack of price incentives and legislation restricts lithium recycling. Furthermore, there are only limited incentives for utilities using energy storage, thus hindering reuse activities. Apart from cobalt or nickel in existing battery packs, only a few valuable metals with the potential to be used in batteries are under research and development. Low-value elements like iron and phosphorous, currently in research, will pose a greater challenge to creating a profitable recycling program without additional incentives or the addition of more valuable lithium. The lack of valuable materials in batteries often limits the potential for recycling. 

It was estimated that grants and incentives are in need to encourage companies to recycle lithium batteries.

Profit margin-Analysis 

Tesla's potential recycling revenue is not more than a low single digit percentage of the cost of a new battery pack. For chemistries like lithium-iron-phosphate from A123 Systems (AONE), lithium-magnesium-phosphate from Valence Technologies (VLNC), lithium-iron-sulfate and lithium-magnesium-oxide from Ener1 (HEV) and lithium-titanate from Altair Nanotechnologies (ALTI) that use cheaper electrode materials, recycling is likely to be a major cost burden instead of an insignificant revenue source. 


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