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Between our obsession with mobile electronics and the growing popularity of electric vehicles, lithium ion battery demand is growing at an astonishing rate. Most of that demand is being driven by automotive sales which consume 60% of lithium ion batteries, even though they only account for about 1% of automotive sales.1 It’s not hard to imagine how far that’s going to go in time, which raises the big question … what happens to all of those batteries when they die?

I don’t know about you, but I use rechargeable lithium batteries for pretty much everything around my house. But when they no longer hold a charge … it’s not always clear how to dispose of them. The same is true for old mobile phones, laptops, or tablets. You can sometimes find recycling containers at some big box stores, but it’s not always apparent if they’ll actually take the device you’re trying to get rid of … it’s not exactly an easy and frictionless user experience to recycle old lithium ion batteries. And this is just consumer electronics I’m talking about. When you add the scale of electric vehicles, home batteries like Tesla’s Powerwall, or grid scale energy storage systems, the scope of the problem gets dramatically bigger.

Why recycling is necessary

In 2015, lithium ion battery demand was about 60 GWh, but just 5 years later that had ballooned to 300 GWh. And according to some projections it’s expected to hit over 2 TWh by 2030, which includes everything from consumer electronics to transportation.1. If you’re talking about just transportation, the same report suggests that it will make up about 1.8 TWh of that demand.

Which raises another question: do we have enough materials to support that amount of battery production? The most common materials needed for lithium ion batteries are nickel, cobalt, lithium, graphite, and copper.

Just the demand for lithium alone is expected to grow from about 300,000 metric tons in 2020 to over 1.7 million metric tons in 2030.2 While there are technically enough resources to support the demand, there aren’t enough mines to dig it up and process it. Just adding mines alone isn’t the answer.

Which brings us to recycling.

How it works

There’s a common refrain that I hear from electric vehicle skeptics, that there’s no way to recycle the batteries, which is not true. In fact, there’s a mad dash of companies all racing to corner the market for lithium ion battery recycling. There are around 100 companies worldwide, and dozens in US and Europe alone, that are all coming at the problem with unique techniques or technologies.3 Companies like Umicore, Neometals Ltd, Glencore, Licycle, and Redwood Materials.

A common approach to recycling batteries is to have a spoke and hub model. This is when a company has multiple locations set up to process spent lithium ion cells. They’ll make sure they’re safely discharged and then ground up and processed into a black mass, which means they’ve removed things like plastics, copper, and aluminum. The remaining mixture is made up of things like lithium, manganese, and cobalt. It looks just like it sounds … it’s a black … mass of battery parts.

That’s transferred to a centralized hub facility that then processes the black mass to convert it back into its component parts. There’s a lot of nuance to how this is done, but there are two overarching methods: hydrometallurgy, which uses chemicals, or pyrometallurgy, which uses high heat. I had a chance to talk to Zarko Meseldzija, who’s the CTO at American Manganese, which has a novel approach to lithium ion battery recycling. In the case of American Manganese’s Recyclico process, it’s hydrometallurgy.

“…we use just hydrometallurgy so there’s no high heat in the process. But then again, you have a hydrometallurgical process but there is different techniques in the hydrometallurgy, like what chemical agents you’re using … So hydrometallurgy is the general term, but how it’s done, that’s within our patent as well.” -Zarko Meseldzija

So when you’re talking about chemicals, concerns come up around worker safety and how environmentally safe it is. In this case, it’s very safe and the process itself is kind of recyclable.

“So with our process what we’ve developed is a closed circuit, or locked cycle, process. Where the solution from the end of the process is cycled back within the process, so you don’t have any harmful environmental discharge. It’s within a contained working area as well. You are dealing with these chemical reagents, so there is a level of know how in how to handle those materials.” -Zarko Meseldzija

So what does this process actually look like? Zarko was kind enough to walk me through their test facility, which looked a lot like I imagined. Kind of a big chemistry set. It all starts with the scrap or black mass. On the issue of scrap, that’s American Manganese’s initial focus.

As an example, when a typical cylindrical style cell is manufactured they’re coating cathode and anode layers onto foil sheets and rolling them up. That’s oversimplified, but in a nutshell that’s what’s happening. There are parts that are trimmed off during manufacturing. Cells that don’t pass quality assurance testing. A whole host of reasons that manufacturing defects occur, which creates a lot of wasted material. A good example is to look at how much cell production Tesla and Panasonic were having to scrap during the initial stages of the Model 3 production ramp up. An average of 39% quarterly cell loss.4 They were essentially having to throw away 3 to 4 cells for every 10 they made. Recovering that scrap and processing it, so it can go back into the manufacturing cycle, can save a lot of money and resources.

Zarko showed me some of the cathode scrap they sourced from third parties.

“…you see some of the big chunks, you can cut this down. I guess you’d call it shredding as well, but not shredding a whole battery. Because then you have a very pure product, there’s no more… it’s essentially your base metals, you have your lithium and aluminum, and then PVDFs, and maybe you have some small percentage of plastics.” -Zarko Meseldzija

“…what you see, in this tank for instance, those foils would go in and we would cut them up into those little, tinier pieces to just allow for better mixing. And then the reagents we use would separate that active material from the aluminum foil.” -Zarko Meseldzija

“And essentially what you would produce from that then is we’re pretty much pulling those metals into solution. And here you would have what would be the pregnant leach solution. So essentially in these, if I can remember correctly, I think this would be the NMC. But in this solution this is your nickel, manganese, cobalt, lithium, and you may have some other impurities as well.” -Zarko Meseldzija

After that the materials are copreceiptated out, which is a process for separating a solid from a solution. When everything is complete you’ll have clean aluminum and foil scrap.

“..from the trimmings we separate active material to the aluminum foil. And we leach that active material into solution. And then what we pull out first, in this case let’s say that is an NCA, in here would be lithium, nickel, cobalt, maybe some impurities. Filter out the impurities and then precipitate out nickel and cobalt together, the hydroxide. And then what’s left in that solution is lithium which we also recover. And you can recover as a carbonate or a hydroxide.” -Zarko Meseldzija

“Yeah. And then when you see the bags of material we’ve produced of… this is a nickel/cobalt carbonate, and this is a hydroxide. Really the difference is what reagents we’re using in that precipitation. So there’s a few trials of different materials.” -Zarko Meseldzija

Why this is important

What sets apart American Manganese’s approach to recycling is how they’re trying to vertically integrate their process into existing battery manufacturing facilities. Instead of the spoke and hub model, they’re working closely with battery manufacturers to custom tailor the recycling process to end up with a usable cathode mix for producing new cells based on that manufacturer’s needs. Each company has very specific chemistry mixes for their cathodes. Different amounts of nickel, cobalt, lithium, etc. Different particle sizes, shapes, and densities that are needed. So the final cathode precursor they can deliver cuts out a refinement step that’s typically needed from other recycling approaches you might see with spoke and hub.

“You have the different compositions of nickel, manganese and cobalt. And the approach of working more so directly with a cathode manufacturer and battery manufacturer is that, one, your feedstock is homogenous, and then the material can be directly integrated. More so than sold to an independent recycler which then sells that into midstream within the lithium ion battery market, only to be further refined and processed.” -Zarko Meseldzija

That tight integration and dealing with the scrap loss can have a big impact on driving down costs. Especially when you consider how much of the materials they can recover.

“So from lab tests and our pilot plant tests, I mean, within our patent we’ve achieved that to 100% of lithium, nickel, manganese, cobalt, aluminum. We’ve scaled up to pilot plant test and some of our extraction results in the pre-leach and leach was 99.7%. And then that’s with high purity as well.” -Zarko Meseldzija

There’s also the transportation of materials and finished batteries to consider too. Currently the majority of lithium ion manufacturing is in China and the United States, but China dominates with over 80% of global production. The United States is about 8%, which is primarily from Tesla.5 But the materials, like lithium, come mostly from Australia and Chile.6 Recycling batteries closer to the locations where they’re being manufactured will save significantly there as well.

“…you’re crossing multiple continents by the time it actually gets into a lithium ion battery … you reduce on transportation costs. And then the material as well is very pure. I mean, when you’re mining things for some deposits 30% grade is an amazing thing, but what do you do with the 70% waste? So there’s those things aren’t considered.” -Zarko Meseldzija

Reducing transportation and higher grade materials that are ready for new manufacturing sounds like a step in the right direction.

What’s the outlook?

So what’s the hold up? Why isn’t this standard operating procedure yet? These things take time. Whenever I’ve talked to anyone in the field like this, a common theme always comes up. It takes a lot of time to go from bench research, to test facility, to demonstrator plant, to full scale production. Many of the recycling companies out there are somewhere around the pilot plant and demonstrator plant phase of the roll out.

“And now it is demonstration, it’s going to be an upgrade, or a scale up of that pilot plant to a 500 kilogram per day capacity. But now each of those stages will just all be integrated in one, and ran continuously over a few weeks. And from there we’ll be able to pull engineering data, economic data, to then put forward into a design for commercialization. So each step of the way is de-risking the process.” -Zarko Meseldzija

Li-Cycle, which is another leader in the space, has been building out a spoke and hub network. They already operate a demonstrator plant in Kingston, Canada, and is building out another facility in Rochester, NY (my old stomping grounds) in an old Eastman Kodak building. That’s supposed to be open in 2022. And they just recently announced another facility in Arizona.

And I can’t not mention former Tesla cofounder, JB Straubel’s Redwood Materials. They’ve been making a bit of a splash recently for obvious reasons. JB Straubel is intimately aware of the intricacies and challenges ahead of us with lithium ion batteries. Their initial facility is able to recover about 80% of a battery’s lithium, and up to 95% of other materials.7 And they’re already profitable at the unit level.

According to one report the battery recycling market is expected to grow from $1.5B in 2019 to $12.2B in 2025 and $18.1B in 2030.8 Definitely good growth potential, but not at the scale we need to match the battery demand growth rate. We’re just at the tip of the iceberg here. And while recycling will be essential for sustainability and meeting demand, it’s most likely not going to replace mining completely.

“I don’t think recycling will completely replace mining any time soon, I think it will complement the supply chain … But I think we’re going to need both for the near future at least.” -Zarko Meseldzija

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Matt Ferrell
Matt Ferrell lives in the Boston area and is a UI/UX designer by trade, but has always been obsessed by technology and how it works. In 2018 he started his YouTube channel, Undecided with Matt Ferrell, where he explores sustainable and smart technologies like EVs, solar panels, and smart homes.

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