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July 27, 2022

The World Faces a New Big Challenge: What About Old Lithium Batteries

June 24, 2022

Original article published in

The current global effort to electrify transport in order to protect the climate and to solve the storage of energy from renewable sources brings one big challenge that is not talked about much yet. What about all the old lithium batteries? How to recycle them?

Although the pressures to slow down the transition to electromobility are not easing, the process itself is already irreversible. The European Parliament approved the ban on the sale of new cars with combustion engines from 2030 only at the beginning of June this year, but for example the Stellantis concern, which brings together thirteen global brands from Peugeot, Fiat and Opel, through Jeep and Chrysler to Alfa Romeo and Maserati, announced the same intention already in March. Later, Audi joined, which wants to end the sale of cars with combustion engines even globally by 2033, and most recently General Motors also announced the same plan with a deadline of 2035. BloombergNEF estimates that by 2040, two-thirds of all passenger vehicles sold worldwide will be electric.

However, there is one catch. Lithium ion batteries, which are the most widespread energy source in electric cars, are very difficult to recycle. The traditional process used for lead-acid batteries, where the parts are crushed and melted or dissolved in acid, does not work for lithium batteries, which are made up of many different parts, so only 5% of them are now recycled worldwide. Their disassembly, which is still almost exclusively done by hand, is also a problem. The fact that batteries have a residual capacity of more than 80% when they must be replaced according to the rules of the car manufacturers is also significant.

Therefore, a number of car manufacturers and various scientific laboratories and technology companies around the world are currently working not only on new methods of battery recycling, but also looking for technologies for their disassembly and the possibility of further use after the end of their useful life in cars.

Among the pioneers of lithium battery recycling is the Canadian company Li-Cycle, which has developed a unique technology thanks to which it is able to obtain elements from used cells, the recycling of which was not possible until now. It is a combination of a special disassembly procedure and a subsequent hydrometallurgical process, the result of which is the separation of up to 95 percent of the original material into a state that allows its further use. Based on this technology, a joint venture was created, the other members of which, in addition to Li-Cycle, are the South Korean battery giant LG Energy Solution and the American car company General Motors, and which plans to build recycling factories in the Korean province of Chungcheong and in the Polish city of Wroclaw.

Another South Korean company, SK Group, recently began trial operation of a metal recycling plant from used batteries in Daejeon, South Korea’s fifth largest city and a center for the engineering industry. The company has also developed its own recycling technology. It is based on the use of lithium hydroxide and is protected by 54 patents. SK Group expects to generate around USD 239 million in revenue from this activity in 2025.

The Japanese car manufacturer Nissan, whose Leaf model was already one of the first commercially successful electric cars in 2010, has started using discarded batteries from this very model in self-driving vehicles that transport production parts between factories. The use of the same batteries is also being tested in Japan in emergency power supply units for signaling at level crossings. Compared to lead-acid batteries, they take only a third of the time to charge, are more durable, allow for remote control, and last an average of 10 years compared to 3 to 7 years for a standard battery.

Audi, in cooperation with German energy giant RWE, is testing a 4.5 MWh battery storage system consisting of 60 lithium-ion batteries from the Audi e-tron vehicle development program. The technology will serve as temporary storage in the pumped hydroelectric power plant in the Hengsteysee reservoir near Dortmund. RWE experts calculate that they will apply the experience from this project in other cases as well, because according to their estimate, the market for second-life batteries will reach 8 GWh in Europe by 2030 and up to 76 GWh by 2035. This is confirmed by a study by SNE Research, according to which the number of end-of-life electric vehicles will increase globally from 540,000 in 2025 to 46.36 million in 2040. Battery waste will increase more than 80 times in the same period, and the market for recycled batteries will grow from 26 GWh a year to 1,606 GWh.

Of course, China is not far behind with the world’s largest electric car market. POSCO’s joint venture HY Clean Metal wants to complete construction of a US$94 million battery recycling production line later this year, and CATL, China’s largest and the world’s largest battery maker, has announced it will spend nearly US$5 billion to build a battery recycling facility in Hubei province . He will cooperate with the German manufacturer of automotive parts ZF Group and the company BASF.

The market for waste batteries is also growing in the USA. In addition to the plant in Korea, the aforementioned companies Li-Cycle and LG Energy Solutions have also begun construction of a recycling plant worth about $175 million in Rochester, New York. It is scheduled to open next year and will be the largest plant of its kind in North America. The construction of a battery recycling line is also planned by Redwood Materials, a company founded by Tesla co-founder JB Straubel. Ford and Volvo will participate in the investment of around USD 1 billion.

Some companies in the Czech Republic are also looking for the so-called “second life” of batteries that can no longer be used in electric cars. The Škoda car company is testing the use of used cells as storage for surpluses from the production of photovoltaic panels at one of its dealers. The company Nano Power, whose shareholders also include the car manufacturer from Mladá Boleslav, in turn uses in its operation “second life” battery storage with a capacity of 80 kWh assembled from discarded batteries that originally worked in AGV robots in Porsche factories.