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Why Advanced Lithium Ion Batteries Won't Be Recycled

John Petersen

One of the most pervasive and enduring myths in the energy storage sector is that a robust recycling infrastructure for used lithium-ion batteries will be built before the wonder-batteries that are being manufactured today for the first generation of plug-in vehicles reach the end of their useful lives. In the worst case scenario, advocates suggest used lithium-ion batteries will be stockpiled until there are enough used batteries to justify the build-out of recycling infrastructure.

The numbers tell a very different story.

For several years the single minded obsession of all lithium-ion battery developers has been reducing costs to a point where using batteries as a substitute for a fuel tank makes economic sense. Most of the progress has come from substituting cheap raw materials like iron, manganese and titanium for the more costly cobalt and nickel that were used in first generation lithium-ion batteries. Unfortunately, when you slash the cost of the materials that go into a battery you also slash the value of the materials that can be recovered from that battery at the end of its useful life.

Using Material Data Safety Sheets from Powerizer and current LME Prices from MetalPrices.com, I've calculated the value of the metals that can be recovered from recycling a ton of used batteries and summarized them in the following table.

Battery Chemistry
Metal Value
Per Ton
Lithium cobalt oxide
$25,000
Lead acid
$1,400
Lithium iron phosphate
$400
Lithium manganese
$300

Given the extremely high metal value of used cobalt-based lithium batteries it seems strange that only one company in the world, Unicore of Belgium, has bothered to develop a recycling process. When you take the time to read and digest Umicore's process description, however, the reason becomes obvious. Recycling lithium-ion batteries is an incredibly complex and expensive undertaking that includes:
  • Collection and reception of batteries;
  • Burning of flammable electrolytes;
  • Neutralization of hazardous internal chemistry;
  • Smelting of metallic components;
  • Refining & purification of recovered high value metals; and
  • Disposal of non-recoverable waste metals like lithium and aluminum.
The process is economic when a ton of batteries contains up to 600 pounds of recoverable cobalt that's worth $40 a pound. The instant you take the cobalt out of the equation, the process becomes hopelessly uneconomic. Products that cannot be economically recycled can only end up in one place, your friendly neighborhood landfill.

Lead-acid batteries are the most widely recycled product in the world because they're 70% lead by weight, the recycling process is simple and a robust global recycling infrastructure already exists. Many leading lead-acid battery manufacturers including Johnson Controls (JCI) and Exide Technologies (XIDE) view their recycling operations as major profit centers that also insure continuity of raw materials supply.

Despite their extremely high metal value, cobalt-based lithium batteries are rarely recycled because process is so difficult and expensive.

In light of their appallingly low metal values, lithium iron phosphate batteries from A123 Systems (AONE) and Valence Technologies (VLNC), lithium manganese batteries from Ener1 (HEV) and lithium titanate batteries from Altair Nanotechnologies (ALTI) will never be reasonable candidates for recycling, which effectively guarantees that buyers will ultimately be required to pay huge up-front disposal fees – think tires with a few more zeros.

In the final analysis, the recycling mythology is just another glaring example of unconscionable waste and pollution masquerading as conservation.

Disclosure: None



was posted on AltEnergyStocks.com.


       

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Comments

Mr Peterson:

I have taken the time to register at this site in order to provide you with some points of clarification with respect to your article "Why Advanced Lithium Batteries Won't Be Recycled".

As an executive with one of the leading lithium battery recycling companies in North America - Toxco, I must say that your article is factually incorrect. First, the value that you place on the batteries is incorrect. Without going into an abundance of detail, let us agree that cobalt containing lithium batteries do have an intrinsic value, but not quite at the level that you ascribe.

Second, there are other companies in the world that do in fact recycle lithium ion batteries. Toxco, located in British Columbia Canada, being one such company, has been recycling both primary and secondary lithium batteries for 18 years.

Further to this point, Toxco has been awarded 9.5 million dollars by the U.S. Department of Energy to build a dedicated facility in the U.S. to manage and recycle lithium ion and nickel metal hydride batteries used in hybrid and electric vehicles. This facility is being built in Lancaster Ohio.

I hope that this provides you with a little more information with respect to lithium ion battery recycling activities outside of Europe.

Regards

Todd Coy

Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. I only wish you'd provided a bit more substance. I figured the recovery value on cobalt batteries would be on the high side since I used the MSDS for a li-poly battery which generally has a very high cobalt content.

I'd be fascinated to know what your Toxco's metal recovery values are for the various chemistries. A lower value on the cobalt batteries wouldn't surprise me a bit, but I'd be shocked to learn of a higher recovery value for iron phosphate and manganese chemistries.

I'm aware of the work Toxco was doing in the Trail facility, the DOE grant and the subsequent storage bunker fire. Since then, your level of press exposure has been pretty low.

I'd be happy to work with you and write a detailed article on Toxco and the economics of its recycling process as they apply to the principal lithium-ion chemistries.

Please feel free to call me direct at +41 26 684 0500, or e-mail jlp at ipo-law.com

Dear John,
I've read your article "Why Advanced Lithium Ion Batteries Won't Be Recycled" with great interest, also because you refer to our company Umicore.
First of all, I'd like to make a correction. You write 'Disposal of non-recoverable waste metals like lithium and aluminum'. This is not right: metals like Li, Al, Mn are collected in a slag fraction, that is designed for use in construction. It replaces natural raw materials. The Li in the slag has an added value because it mitigates the 'Alkali Silica Reaction' (ASR). Li-nitrate is added to concrete to improve the quality (just google 'ASR Li(NO)3' and you'll find numerous articles on this subject). We have demonstrated that the Li in our slag has the same effect as adding Li-nitrate (patent request pending).
Further you write 'Burning of flammable electrolytes'. Our installation is not an incinerator. The battery organic materials (solvent, plastics) are used as reducing agent, replacing cokes or natural gas. The energy released during these reactions is used to heat the furnace. Excess of energy is used for other processes.
Independent Life Cycle Analysis have demonstrated that Co and Ni recovered by our process are much 'greener' than Co and Ni produced from ores.
I agree that for Co/Ni free batteries (or low Co/Ni content), the recycling cost exceeds the metal value. That is why we have designed a process in which only high valuable elements (Cu, Co, Ni) are refined, and low valuable elements are collected in a slag for construction (no refining burden nor costs). If in future there would be an interest to recover Li from slag, that will be possible (basic R&D work finished and published).
Last but not least, I fully disagree with your alternative: 'Products that cannot be economically recycled can only end up in one place, your friendly neighborhood landfill.' Although value recovery is an important driver for recycling, it is not the only one. In case of EV-batteries, EHS considerations are more important. It is simply irresponsible to landfill these batteries. Because of their high voltage (even at 'end of life'), there is a real risk on electrocution and electric shortcuts. High voltage in combination with flammable solvents is the ideal cocktail for serious fires. And all these batteries contain hazardous compounds that could leak and spoil the environment for the next generations. For these reasons, landfill as such is not an option. A minimum of 'inertization' will be required. Not only electrical, but also chemical neutralization. This means a chemical processing will be required even for landfilling. And if you design a process for inertization, it is better that the inert products can be used somewhere instead of being landfilled. And that is exactly what we're doing!
Kind regards,
Jan Tytgat

Dr. Jan Tytgat
Manager Operations & Business Development
Umicore Battery Recycling
A. Greinerstraat 14
B-2660 Hoboken
Belgium

Well, I'd first of all just have to echo Todd Coy's comments from Toxco. Then I'd have to say, speaking from personal experience, if recycling lithium ion is so unprofitable, why can I sell the material I collect for $1.75 a pound? I think either this post is hopelessly outdated, or poorly researched. I collect all the lithium ion batteries I can because I am paid well to recycle them.

Articles tend to get dated after they've been published for almost two years.

I've still seen no reliable data to even suggest that anybody is getting more value out of used lithium-ion batteries than they spend on the recycling process.

Show me verifiable facts or don't waste my time.

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