March 14, 2019: Argonne National Laboratory and the US Department of Energy have begun setting up a cutting-edge research centre that could recycle lithium batteries in a cost-effective — even profitable — way within three years.
If successful, this would render void one of the lead battery industry’s main arguments against lithium technology, that it cannot be recycled in the same way as lead.
A new R&D center at the ANL is being set up with the ultimate aim of making the lithium battery industry a closed-loop sector like the lead battery industry, which prides itself on the fact that used batteries are almost 100% recyclable.
Lithium batteries are notoriously not worth recycling, and although some companies, such as Belgium-based Umicore, claim to be making profit from doing it — primarily through the extraction of cobalt and manganese in some lithium chemistry types — it is widely recognized that the imminent end of life for so many electric vehicles will add to the already growing problem of what to do with so many used Li-ion batteries.
CSIRO, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, for example, last year said that just 2% of Australia’s annual 3,300 tonnes of waste lithium batteries was recycled. By 2036, if the amount of waste continues to grow at 20% a year, there will be 188,000 tonnes generated, according to the Lithium Battery Recycling in Australia report by the organization.
The Department of Energy is supporting the research center with $15 million over three years — by which time the scientists are aiming to have a pre-commercial prototype available that the industry can take and scale up on its own.
Linda Gaines, transportation analyst for the Argonne National Laboratory and chief scientist at the new ReCell Center, said the methods being explored differed from anything being used at the moment.
One of the principal research tasks was to look at extricating the cathode structure in its entirety rather than separating its constituents, which would mean it could be put straight into a new battery without having to be processed.
“One of the key things about lithium batteries is that the materials are very specialized,” said Gaines, who has 40 years’ experience in applied energy research.
“There are several steps you have to go through to get to the specialized geometrical structures that are in the battery materials and our main focus is to recover those complicated structures from the batteries.
“None of the materials in the battery makes up the lion’s share of the mass and you have to separate them from each other, which isn’t so easy because there isn’t one that’s a lot heavier than everything else. Right now cobalt is driving the recycling process in the plants where it is happening, because it’s profitable. But one of the areas the DoE is concentrating on is how to make batteries with less and even no cobalt — which is good news in that we won’t be dependent on importing it, but it also means at the end of life there will be less of it to recover, reducing the amount of materials that have value from the process.
“So the structure of the cathode is a valuable commodity to recover. It’s complicated because there are so many different structures you might want to recover and it’s unclear whether recovering a mixture of them will be as good as recovering them separated, so we’re looking at separation technologies and conversions as well.
“The valuable elements in the cathode include nickel, manganese and aluminium, and there’s also graphite in the anode — but we’re hoping you don’t have to separate those materials from each other but use the complicated compounds per se. This is the valuable part. Even if you have less valuable elements, if you put them into a structure that’s valuable and you can recover that structure, then you have the possibility of having an economical process.”
Tona Kunz, a spokesperson at the ANL, said: “One of the key things is that this is an open collaboration space and we are looking for more academic researchers to come and work with it. With them coming and telling us about their best practices in manufacturing at their facilities, what their needs are, it can all be added to the research and help shape it. This is going to be a growing facility and that’s going to help accelerate this process.”
Already working with the ANL and the DoE are the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and several universities including Worcester Polytechnic Institute, the University of California and Michigan Technological University. OEMs, battery manufacturers, recycling centres and material suppliers are also working with the centre.
PICTURE: The ReCell Center will leverage cutting-edge R&D facilities at its collaborating institutions, such as the battery post-test facility at Argonne National Laboratory.