The thought article on Global Lithium-Ion (Li-Ion) Battery Recycling market has provided a panoptic view of the genesis of the environmental imperatives that resulted in the profusion of Li-ion batteries (LIBs), the potential economic benefits LIB recycling, and the resultant addressal of environmental protection as well as human rights exigencies. It is also of paramount importance that the determinants and considerations that are collectively poised to influence the growth of this market in the future and are currently posing as potential challenges are brought to the fore.
Thus, commencing with challenges Viz. significant raw material price fluctuations lead to a certain amount of incertitude about the economics of recycling. For instance, according to USGS Mineral Commodity Summaries during the first 7 months of 2019 cobalt prices generally exhibited a downward trend, which was reportedly ascribed to oversupply and consumer destocking and deferral of purchases. In early August the same year, a Switzerland-based producer and marketer of commodities announced that, because of low cobalt prices, it had planned to place its world-leading cobalt mine on care and-maintenance status by yearend 2019. This raised questions about the economic feasibility of LIB recycling or repurposes compare to that of manufacturing new batteries with fresh materials. This skepticism arises from the fact with the drop in cobalt prices, recycled cobalt would struggle to compete with mined cobalt with regards to prices which in turn incentivize manufacturers to choose mine cobalt over its recycled counterparts which would be unprofitable for recyclers. This is an example of economic factors not being conducive to the growth of the Lithium Ion (Li-Ion) Battery Recycling Market. Further, a supplemental long-term financial concern for companies who might consider foraying into the LIB recycling business or expanding its LIB recycling capacity is whether alternatives like Lithium-Air Batteries which draw oxygen from the air to drive battery chemistry, packing approx. 10 times as much energy per weight as LIBs or a completely different vehicle propulsion system, like hydrogen-powered fuel cells is slated to gain a major foothold in the electric vehicle (EV) market during the next few years reducing the demand for recycling LIBs.
The other challenge is that of battery chemistry, i.e., the ever-evolving composition of cathodes since the very inception of LIBs during the 1990s to accommodate a variety of enhanced performance parameters concomitantly facilitating cost reduction as well as an assortment of other components. Constituents of cathodes comprise a variety of electrochemically active powder like lithium cobalt oxide (LCO), lithium iron phosphate, lithium nickel cobalt aluminum oxide, lithium nickel manganese cobalt oxide (NMC) mixed with other components like carbon black and glued to an aluminum-foil current collector with a polymeric compound such as poly(vinylidene fluoride) or PVDF. Whereas anode comprises of copper foil, graphite, and PVDF. Further thin, porous plastic films made of either polyethylene or polypropylene acts as separators to insulate the electrodes to prevent short-circuiting. While a solution of lithium fluoride salts (LiPF6 is the most common to be employed) dissolved in a mixture of ethylene carbonate and dimethyl carbonate acts as the electrolyte and all the above securely packed in an aluminum or plastic case. Large LIBs intended for EVs also include circuitry, safety devices, and sensors, that control battery operation. Thus, so many components make the recycling process more complex raising the cost because recyclers require to deal with the additional layer of components and would require to sort the LIBs out based on the nature of constitution to meet the specifications of recycled materials buyers.
Additionally, current recycling methods too, need to be revisited due to economic and environmental concerns. For instance, presently the majority of LIB recycling is carried out by large pyrometallurgy facilities. These facilities are known – to operate at 1,500 °C and to recover cobalt, copper, and nickel, but not aluminum, lithium, or any organic compounds. Further, the capital insensitivity of these facilities also stems from the requirement to treat the toxic fluorine compounds emission released during smelting. Besides, the recycling method of chemical leaching aka hydrometallurgy processing which is commercially carried out in China albeit offering a less energy-intensive alternative which involves the extraction and separation of cathode metals below 100 °C and facilitates the recovery of copper, lithium, and other transition metals, the requirement for employing caustic reagents viz. sulfuric, nitric, hydrochloric acids and hydrogen peroxide. Thus, the energy and power industry has brought about a few recent changes facilitated by initiatives by national governments as well as research institutions. For instance, researchers in the UK have created a dedicated consortium for enhancing LIB recycling, particularly from EVs in 2018. To this end, it is important to note that the ReLiB (the Reuse and Recycling of Lithium Ion Batteries) project is led by the University of Birmingham and comprises 7 academic institutions which are the University of Liverpool, University of Leicester, University of Edinburgh, Oxford Brookes University, Newcastle University, Cardiff University, and the Science and Technology Facilities Council along with 12 industrial partners to establish theeconomic, legal andtechnologicalinfrastructure to achieve recycling of approx. 100% of the materials contained in LIB from the automotive industry.
The project is engaged in developing robotic procedures for sorting, disassembling, and recovering valuable materials from LIB with the potential of removing the risk of injury to which the human labor force is otherwise subjected. Further employing automation is also a possible means of enhanced separation of LIB components, increasing their grade of purity and consequently the value. Besides in February 2019 The United States Department of Energy (DOE), launched a $5 million per year LIB recycling center, called the ReCell Center, funded by DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Vehicle Technologies Office, to facilitate pivotal discoveries in cost-effective LIB recycling so valuable components such as cobalt and nickel are efficiently recovered fostering foster a globally competitive recycling industry within the nation and reducing the reliance on foreign sources of materials that go into making LIBs. ReCell is a collaboration between DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory which is leading the initiative, Michigan Technological University, National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), University of California at San Diego as well as Worcester Polytechnic Institute.