Lithium batteries have been around for nearly 30 years now. They are used increasingly in a wide range of product, from phones to electric vehicles to aeroplanes. They have the advantage of being easily rechargeable and generate more power than older battery technologies. They do, however present specific risks when being disposed of; they are more easily flammable, and a lithium-based fire is not easy to put out. As more products and vehicles containing these batteries come to the end of their life, waste operators are having to take more care in identifying and sorting them from general waste streams. It’s a new area, but in the past few years, efforts have begun to be made to better understand how lithium batteries can be safely dealt with and recycled.
A search of the AcuComm database reveals a handful of dedicated lithium battery recycling plants around the world. Australia opened its first such facility in 2017, when Envirostream began operations in Melbourne. Its processing line can process 40 tonnes of batteries per month. The process requires batteries to have all their energy discharged prior to any handling by the company’s staff. After this first step, all batteries are granulated in an environment of negative pressure to ensure that all airborne dust particles are captured. Cobalt, nickel and lithium, which are in dust form and mixed, go for further processing and can be separated and purified to be used again in battery manufacture.
In Japan, a facility dedicated to recycling lithium batteries from electric vehicles opened in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, in 2018. The plant is operated by 4R Energy Corporation, a joint venture between Nissan and Sumitomo. The availability of used lithium-ion batteries is expected to increase significantly in the near future as buyers of the first generation of electric cars look to replace their vehicles. The batteries recycled and refabricated at the factory will be used to offer the world’s first exchangeable refabricated battery for electric vehicles.
Another approach is the better sorting of lithium batteries from the general waste stream, or indeed to sort them from other battery types. For example, In 2017, Refind Technologies installed its OBS600 optical battery sorting technology at Raw Materials Company’s (RMC) recycling facility in Port Colborne, Ontario, Canada. The equipment is capable of sorting 600 kg of batteries per hour. The OBS600 machine uses a camera and machine learning software to recognise each battery by its label. It can handle small consumer batteries of cylindrical and rectangular shape and can sort them by chemistry, including alkaline, zinc-carbon, nickel-metal hydride, nickel-cadmium and lithium primary.
Finally, a couple of major R&D centres have recently been announced, to investigate ways to recycle lithium batteries and other hard to process e-waste items. In February 2019, the US Department of Energy’s Vehicle Technologies Office opened the first lithium-ion battery recycling research and development centre at Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, IL. Known as the ReCell Center, the project aims to reclaim and recycle critical materials from lithium-based battery technology. The recycling centre focuses on cost-effective recycling processes to recover as much economic value as possible from spent batteries.
Soon after, in March 2019, Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and the French Alternative Energies and the Atomic Energy Commission (CEA – Commissariat à l’énergie atomique et aux énergies alternatives) unveiled the launch of a joint research centre to develop innovative, energy-efficient solutions for the recycling and recovery of resources from electrical and electronic waste. The new centre, named the NTU Singapore-CEA Alliance for Research in Circular Economy (NTU SCARCE), will focus on four research areas that address the recycling and recovery of materials from common e-waste such as: lithium-ion batteries, silicon-based solar panels; printed circuit boards from discarded e-waste; and detoxifying plastic parts in e-waste. The National Environment Agency of Singapore is supporting this centre under the agency’s Closing the Waste Loop Research and Development Initiative.
The map below shows the locations of all the lithium recycling and R&D sites mentioned in the AcuComm database. To explore the full dataset, click here.
Source: AcuComm database, October 2019