The state of lithium-ion battery recycling has lots of people nervous. Are these issues justified?
No, these issues usually are not justified. We have now revealed an incredible deal on the topic, as have the Oeko Institute and others. Nonetheless, we’re continually stumbling throughout articles within the media to the impact that recycling lithium-ion batteries is an unsolved downside, and that we’re on a collision course with an enormous hazardous waste debacle, and so forth. These studies may even be present in magazines and newspapers which I feel do good analysis. To place it crudely, it’s all nonsense.
What’s the present state of affairs with lithium and cobalt recycling?
Recycling works and has already been carried out in apply. There are two primary steps. Step one is to interrupt down the battery packs manually into their part components: the housing, and digital elements, and the precise battery modules. Umicore does this at its location in Hanau, Germany.
After that, the supplies are recycled. The housing supplies and the digital elements are despatched to the standard recycling processes used for these components. There are completely different approaches to recycling the battery modules themselves. At Umicore, we now have made a acutely aware selection for a course of that doesn’t require us to open the battery cells or modules, however fairly processes the cells or modules, as much as in regards to the measurement of a shoebox, in a blast-furnace course of.
So meaning they’re incinerated?
It’s not incineration; it’s smelting in a blast-furnace course of. This creates two phases. One is a steel alloy containing cobalt, nickel and copper. The opposite is a slag part. The slag comprises the lithium. These two phases are then additional processed in order that we will recuperate the pure metals on the finish. As a result of we soften the whole lot down, we’re very versatile and might settle for batteries with very completely different chemical compositions. Additionally, this metallurgical course of may be very secure and environmentally environment friendly. By melting down the unopened cells, no one comes into contact with the electrolyte and the emissions ensuing from the method bear a extremely efficient flue fuel scrubbing course of.
So recycling works simply as nicely, whatever the chemistry of the lithium-ion battery?
With our course of, sure. And by the best way, there’s one other misunderstanding: Generally folks say that the blast furnace course of is extraordinarily energy-intensive and that it has a correspondingly unfavorable CO2 stability. Not even that’s true, as a result of a lot of the vitality wanted for the blast furnace course of is equipped by the elements of the batteries themselves. These are the natural elements such because the electrolyte and graphite, in addition to the residual cost left within the batteries. The metallurgical course of is carried out in our massive built-in steel smelter in Hoboken, close to Antwerp in Belgium. This is identical location the place we course of digital scrap, catalytic converters and a variety of precious-metal-containing supplies on a really massive scale, with a capability of as much as 500,000 metric tons per yr. Inside this infrastructure, we established the particular course of for recycling lithium-ion batteries again in 2011.
What proportion of the lithium and cobalt in waste batteries can you retain in circulation utilizing your course of?
We recuperate greater than 95% of the cobalt, nickel and copper contained within the batteries we obtain. And that’s battery-grade materials. Which means that Umicore can produce new battery supplies from the recovered metals. Along with its recycling actions, Umicore is likely one of the world’s main producers of cathode materials for lithium-ion batteries.
And the lithium?
Previously, lithium couldn’t be recovered economically. We have now modified this over the previous couple of years by optimizing our processes. Now we’re capable of focus the lithium left within the slag. This slag is like a synthetic lithium mineral. Right this moment, 50% of the world’s lithium mine manufacturing already comes from arduous rock minerals. Spodumene is the most effective identified; the remaining is from brines, from particular salt lakes, notably in South America. Our synthetic lithium mineral is akin to the spodumene. Companions who course of the lithium arduous rock minerals may also produce lithium carbonate from concentrates contained in our slag. The yields from this usually are not but as excessive as for cobalt, nickel and copper, however immediately we’re nicely above 50%. We have no idea but precisely which yields we are going to arrive at in the long run, however we’re assured that we’ll additionally attain a really appreciable stage of lithium extraction, though it’s nonetheless too early to nail down a exact proportion.
You say the yield is already over 50%. At immediately’s costs, is that this financial? Or does it price cash to recycle lithium on this means?
You must think about battery recycling as a unit. If we have already got the battery within the recycling course of to recuperate cobalt, nickel and copper, then it’s simply an additional step to get to the lithium. The general bundle because it stands immediately makes financial sense. Nonetheless, the extent to which battery recycling is economical total depends upon quite a lot of various factors.
An important are, first, what useful substances are contained in what concentrations within the battery? There’s a massive distinction between nickel-manganese-cobalt batteries and iron-phosphate batteries. For those who examine the worth of iron with the costs for cobalt, nickel or copper, it’s low. And phosphate doesn’t look significantly better.
The second issue is the place the present market costs of the metals are and the third is the effectivity of the recycling course of used. So, how good is extraction, and the way good is vitality effectivity? Economies of scale are one other crucial level. We anticipate a pointy improve within the portions of spent batteries from electrical automobiles beginning across the center of the following decade. This may convey down the price of recycling significantly.
In different phrases, if there are massive portions in 10 years’ time, then the recycling might be worthwhile, and it received’t price anybody something?
Sure, we consider that will probably be economically possible over the long run. However you even have to think about the alternate options. You possibly can’t simply dump the batteries in a landfill. From an financial perspective, it makes good sense to recycle lithium-ion batteries to a excessive commonplace. This additionally will increase provide safety for vital uncooked supplies, for the reason that spent batteries accumulate right here, whereas we now have to import a lot of the main uncooked supplies from outdoors Europe. For the environmental footprint of a battery, recycling additionally makes numerous sense, for the reason that vitality expenditure and the carbon footprint of batteries manufactured with a better proportion of secondary uncooked supplies is considerably higher than when these uncooked supplies come from mining.
Are there main price variations within the recycling strategies themselves?
The standard knowledge is that actually good recycling, which means high-quality recycling with excessive yields, but in addition with very excessive requirements for emissions and security, is mostly dearer than poor recycling. This is applicable not solely particularly to lithium-ion batteries, however to recycling processes on the whole. One instance of that is waste electrical and digital gear. Within the case of dangerous recycling, home equipment are sometimes by some means shipped off to West Africa, for example, the place they’re recycled beneath fairly poor circumstances. You actually must put the phrase recycling in quotes right here. Initially, on account of what occurs there, far fewer uncooked supplies are often returned to the cycle than with high-quality recycling in Germany. After which in fact there’s the appreciable harm to the atmosphere and to human well being. On this respect, wanting solely at value — what recycling prices — is the improper method. Sooner or later, far more emphasis must be positioned on the standard of recycling.
How can batteries be designed and produced in a extra recycling-friendly means?
An vital key idea right here is ‘design for disassembly,’ because the battery should be extractable from the scrap product with out nice effort in order that it may be utilized in essentially the most appropriate recycling processes. As soon as the battery pack has been disassembled from an electrical automobile, it must be dismantled additional as described above to get on the cell modules. Right here, for instance, the kind of connection is essential; at the moment, the assorted automotive batteries have numerous completely different screw, adhesive and welded connections, which makes disassembly extraordinarily tough. Better standardization would additionally make sense with a view to rising the extent of automation in disassembly sooner or later.
I’d like to return again to the yields of recycling. What are your recycling charges?
The EU Battery Directive stipulates a minimal recycling price of 50% by weight. However this isn’t actually the most effective method as a result of it treats the entire contents equally. Based mostly on a battery pack, you may obtain 50% with out even recovering the cobalt, nickel, copper or lithium. We don’t assume this is sensible. The main focus must be on excessive recycling charges, particularly for crucial battery metals. We should always already be aiming at processes that go nicely past the 90% mark for many battery metals. However this must be justified by an affordable price, and above all by an affordable vitality enter. That’s a key level. Recycling will not be an finish in itself; on the one hand, it’s about rising provide safety and being environmentally higher than mining.
At first look, a recycling price of 95% for some metals sounds good. However with a life cycle of, say, 5 years for grid-based storage, solely 35% of the unique uncooked supplies are left after 100 years. Is a price of 95% actually sufficient?
You possibly can go to the opposite excessive and attempt to obtain 99.5% or 99.9% recycling charges — that’s, nearly zero loss. If, nevertheless, the vitality expenditure and the associated fee expenditure improve exponentially for the final percentages or tenths of a %, this doesn’t make environmental sense, both.
What’s your largest problem in recycling?
The largest problem immediately will not be a lot the technical recycling processes as capturing used batteries to the best extent potential and channeling them into high-quality recycling processes. In any case, the most effective processes are ineffective until the supplies discover their means into the system. At current, it is a main downside with transportable lithium-ion batteries, equivalent to these utilized in cellphones and laptops. We estimate that immediately lower than 10% of the world’s potential is definitely being recycled to a excessive commonplace. In consequence, the annual quantity of cobalt misplaced worldwide is enough to equip greater than three million electrical automobiles.
What occurs to the 50% of the lithium that you simply don’t recuperate in your course of — is it misplaced for good?
Strictly talking, it’s not misplaced. The slags containing the rest are reused in constructing supplies or aggregates. However you even have to think about that there isn’t a actual scarcity of lithium. Lithium is likely one of the commonest components within the earth’s crust and there are deposits in lots of international locations, together with in Europe.
Within the case of cobalt, then again, environmental and social issues related to cobalt mining come up many times. Is there such a factor as ‘sustainable cobalt?’
We’re one of many largest producers of cathode supplies on the planet and have enormous demand for cobalt. We get hold of it from long-term provide agreements and, as early as 2004, we established an inner accountable sourcing course of primarily based on OECD pointers. Now we’ve additional developed it particularly for cobalt. We really enter the mines and examine them in opposition to environmental safety and occupational security standards. We solely supply from locations the place we’re certain that the extraction is being carried out responsibly. We at the moment don’t take care of small mining operations as a result of we will’t guarantee their enforcement of occupational well being and security and that no little one labor is getting used.
Small-scale mining refers to a few of the unlawful mining operations within the Democratic Republic of the Congo, proper?
Sure. By the best way, that is one thing else the media usually will get improper. Within the [Democratic Republic of the] Congo, too, about 80% of cobalt manufacturing comes from industrial mining. Between 15% and 20% comes from small-scale mines.
Are you able to make sure that the cobalt from small-scale mining will not be sneaking its means into your provide by some means?
Sure. That’s precisely how we method the difficulty. We all know our provide chains very nicely. We go to the mines; we all know the downstream processing steps, and we take care that no different concentrates are added someplace alongside the best way. We not solely do that internally, however we now have additionally been externally licensed by PwC for 2 years.