Recycled lithium batteries as good as new.

With bigger and better lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries being churned out from laboratory benchtops to manufacturing plants at an unprecedented pace, progress in the electric battery industry gives an electrifying ray of hope in the climate conundrum that is plaguing humanity.

But the boon of electrification also comes with a huge bane: battery waste. It is estimated that almost 145 million electric vehicles (EV) will hit the road by 2030 – that’s over a 1000% increase compared to 2020 statistics. You get the picture.

The recent recall of EV and home batteries from Australian consumers, amid concerns that they may be faulty, highlights the importance of having a sustainable cradle-to-grave battery life cycle to avert a catastrophic accumulation of toxic waste. Implementing such an ecosystem ensures that the negative impacts of electric batteries are minimised, paving the way for a more eco-friendly decarbonised economy.

While recycling batteries is the way to go, the general impression is that recycled materials are not as good as their virgin counterparts. But now, some scientists are changing that perception.

As good as new.

Li-ion batteries are notorious for their use of riskily mined metals, which tarnishes the green image of EVs. Recycling them to recover valuable metals would lower the social and environmental impacts of mining, prevent millions of tons of dead batteries from being landfilled, and slash the energy consumption and emissions generated from making them.

Debunking the hesitancy of battery manufacturers to use recycled materials in their production lines, a recent study published in Joule demonstrates that batteries with recycled cathodes can be as good, or even better than new ones.

Using a patented recycling technique, the research team tested batteries with recycled nickel-manganese-cobalt (NMC) cathodes. NMC cathodes are one of the most common flavours of cathodes, comprising (as the name suggests) an almost equal composition of nickel, manganese and cobalt.

The patented Li-ion battery recycling technology. Photo credits: Wang et al.

 

Tried and tested.

Structurally, the recycled batteries are found to be more porous, which allows easier movement of lithium ions in and out of the battery. The resulting batteries are not only comparable to commercial cathodes in terms of their energy density, but they also exhibit a longer cycle life up to 53%.

The researchers performed their tests on an industrially relevant scale, albeit not in actual cars. In their experiments, they made 11 Ampere-hour industry-standard pouch cells loaded with recycled materials at the same density as EV batteries.  To ensure that the recycled batteries meet the commercial viability goals for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, testing was done according to a strict protocol devised by the United States Advanced Battery Consortium (USABC). Ultimately, the work successfully proved that recycled cathode materials are a viable, high-grade alternative to pristine materials.

Innovation the way forward.

Battery systems are complicated beasts. Couple that with the dearth of skilled battery engineers, recycling used batteries is not an easy and straightforward feat. Want to know more about how electric batteries are recycled? Check out this article!

As technological innovation leads the way toward efficient battery recycling ecosystems, manufacturers can be less reliant on mining activities that endanger fragile environmental ecosystems. In addition, recycling will also be key to reducing the scarcity of resources needed in the manufacturing process, providing a long-term solution to ease the strain on the global battery supply chain.

 

Main picture credits: Dr Alex Holland and Dr Na Jiao/IDTechX

By Mitchell Lim

Mitchell Lim is the latest addition to DUG’s science communication department. With a PhD in Chemical Engineering, Mitch is an expert in the fields of catalysis and ultrasonics. Full-time science geek, part-time fitness junkie, Mitch is living proof that brains and brawn are not mutually exclusive. His mission is to make science more accessible to you, while dreaming of having access to Martian land someday.

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