A Better, Greener Way to Recycle Li-Ion Batteries Is Here

With today’s processes, less than 5% of lithium is recovered from batteries in the US and Europe.

Electric car
Carlos Sanchez Pereyra / Getty Images

It’s fair to say we now know how to make efficient, long-range lithium-ion batteries. Lucid managed to get a version of its forthcoming Air sedan certified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency with 520 miles of range, easily outdistancing Tesla (whose 2021 Long Range Model 3 does a mere 365 miles). But where are we on recycling those batteries’ precious metals? Polls show it’s a major consumer concern as electric vehicle (EV) adoption increases rapidly

By 2020, 14 gigawatt-hours of batteries—some 102,000 tons—were being retired each year, and the number is expected to grow to 7.8 million tons annually by 2040, according to IDTechEx. At that point, battery recycling will be a $31 billion industry. Right now, most of the batteries that are getting recycled are from consumer electronics, but that’s expected to soon change. 

As National Geographic reports, today’s battery recycling technology is “fairly crude.” In what is called pyrometallurgy, the battery modules are burned, which leaves a slurry containing copper, nickel, and cobalt. The individual metals are then extracted. In hydrometallurgy, solvents are used to recover valuable metals. Both processes are dirty and energy-intensive. Lithium is eminently reusable, but its value is often not enough for recyclers to recover. 

Currently, less than 5% of the lithium in li-ion batteries is recovered in the U.S. and European Union, reports Chemical and Engineering News. Linda L. Gaines of Argonne National Laboratory cites technical constraints, logistics, economic barriers, and regulatory gaps. Says the magazine: “Battery researchers and manufacturers have traditionally not focused on improving recyclability. Instead, they have worked to lower costs and increase battery longevity and charge capacity. And because researchers have made only modest progress improving recyclability, relatively few Li-ion batteries end up being recycled.”

Automakers have taken note. Bentley Motors is going all-electric, and its chairman and CEO, Adrian Hallmark said, “If you talk about the future and battery recycling, it’s one of my biggest concerns.” Japanese scientist Akira Yoshino won the Nobel Prize for his work on li-ion batteries, and now he says the industry has to figure out how to profitably recycle them. 

The current chicken-and-egg impasse can change, says Nth Cycle, a Boston-area company headed by Dr. Megan O’Connor. The company was started in 2017, using technology developed by her co-founder and vice president of R&D, Chad Vectis, during his time at Harvard’s engineering school. 

Nth Cycle portfolio is recovering valuable metals using an electroextraction process that, O’Connor told Charged magazine, combines water filtration and electricity. “You can think about pushing electrical current across a very large filter, and that electrical current helps us to capture the metals selectively,” she said. “That’s really how our technology differs fro the hydro and pyro, and helps us get to these very low operating costs. Our only input is a very low level of electricity that can come from 100 percent renewable, versus the high chemical and energy use of the other two.” 

O’Connor said its technology embraces the “three Cs”—it’s clean, consistent, and customizable. She said the process can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 75% compared to hydro and pyro. She also said electroextraction cuts significantly into transportation costs since traditional recyclers have to move their heavy “black mass” base material to a processing site when only 20% of the weight is recoverable. The Nth Cycle tech can be installed at sites where the black mass is produced. 

The Nth Cycle team in the lab.
The Nth Cycle team in the lab.

Nth Cycle

Nth Cycle will deploy its first two units in early 2022. The application goes beyond recovering precious metals from EV batteries. It can also be used to recover cobalt, nickel, and other metals from mining operations. 

In April, Nth Cycle said it had secured $3.2 million in seed funding from investors led by venture capital firm Clean Energy Ventures. That company’s managing director, Daniel Goldman, said Nth Cycle “can ultimately have a material impact on climate change by mitigating over 2.5 billion tons of CO2-equivalent emissions over the next 30 years through cleaner processing and re-use of critical minerals.” 

Other initiatives could also improve the battery recycling rate. In 2019, $15 million was allocated to a li-ion recycling operation, the ReCell Center, headed by Jeffrey S, Spangenberger at Argonne National Laboratory. The Re-Cell Center brings together 50 researchers at six national labs and universities, as well as industry partners. The Department of Energy also created the $5.5 million Battery Recycling Prize at that time to encourage innovation. 

Photo Captions:

Nth Cycle CEO Megan O’Connor says, “Our only input is a very low level of electricity that can come from 100 percent renewables.” (Nth Cycle)