Lux Research, a research and advisory service provider based in Boston, says existing infrastructure capacity can't handle the volumes of batteries that will come to market as electrification ramps up.
According to Lux, by the end of 2020, 17.6 gigawatt-hours of lithium-ion batteries had reached end of life. By 2035, this figure will balloon to more than 140 gigawatt-hours. The company says, historically, battery recycling efforts offered low recovery rates for cathode active materials while consuming unsustainable amounts of energy and chemicals.
The company’s new report, "Clear-Cut Opportunities in Battery Recycling," evaluates battery recycling opportunities for chemical and materials companies, cathode manufacturers and automotive original equipment manufacturers and examines emerging startups and where they fit along the battery value chain.
According to Lux’s findings, three processes could improve lithium battery recycling. This includes direct recycling, hydrometallurgy and pyrometallurgy.
Lux says these methods could improve recycling because they bypass steps in the value chain. Direct recycling will recover cathode material, which is used for cell manufacturing. Hydrometallurgical processes can produce metal salts for use in cathode production, given that the product is of battery-grade purity, and other parts of the battery such as anode material. Pyrometallurgy outputs are base metals that often require additional refinement to go back into the battery supply chain.
"The driving factors for recycling development are numerous," says Abhirabh Basu, an analyst at Lux Research and lead author of the report. "Policy is emerging as an important safeguard against environmental hazards associated with battery disposal, economic development of recycling will benefit almost all players along the battery value chain and technology for lithium-ion battery recycling has improved to the point that recyclers claim recovery rates upward of 98 percent."
Despite increased activity in the past few years, Lux says battery recycling remains limited by technological and economic factors. As electric vehicle batteries become prevalent in lithium-ion battery scrap streams, recyclers will process diverse cathode chemistries at higher volumes.
In the report, Lux says the main barriers to battery recycling in the near term are:
- an immediate need for technology and process innovation. Current battery collection infrastructure and recycling technology are not optimized for the cost-effective reuse of valuable materials. Improvements in recycling rate, efficiency and cost savings drive current research and development efforts. However, integration into large-scale recycling will take time. As end-of-life battery volumes increase over the next few years, recyclers with the best technology will be the most competitive.
- diversity in EV batteries. While current battery recycling infrastructure has focused on consumer electronics, lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles lack standardization. The variability in design and composition poses a challenge for waste collection and sorting. It also makes it difficult to automate disassembly and recycling processes, requiring costly manual pack removal, pack disassembly, module removal and cell separation.
- the path to profitability is not guaranteed. The value of scrap batteries lies in the recovered cathode materials. Recovered battery-grade metals fetch a higher price but require careful refining processes. Less valuable cathode chemistries such as lithium iron phosphate drag down the economic outlook. Regulations across the globe will force recyclers to accept high volumes of batteries, but it’s up to them to make this profitable.
Lux says this ongoing shift toward battery recycling will impact every player across the lithium-ion battery value chain. To learn more about the company’s new report, click here.