Innovation Is Making Lithium-Ion Batteries Harder To Recycle

Cut cobalt cathodes are held over a barrel in the Netherlands. Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg

As manufacturers make lithium-ion batteries as cheap as they can, they’re removing valuable elements that make them worthwhile to recycle, according to the Electric Power Research Institute.

EPRI assesses the end-of-life cost of batteries in a report it published at the end of last year. Last week, Ben Kaun, the program manager for EPRI’s Energy Storage Program, told members of the Illinois Commerce Commission that the lack of recycling adds an end-of-life cost to lithium-ion batteries.

“Currently in lead-acid 98 percent I think of those systems can get recovered and turned into new lead-acid batteries. It’s almost a fully closed loop,” Kaun told commissioners. “Lithium ion is not like that. There’s not the same kind of level of high-value materials, and a lot of the innovations going on right now in lithium-ion batteries are actually to drive out the remaining high value materials, like cobalt, out of the system.”

The cost of cobalt, which is used as a cathode material in batteries, jumped from $32,500 at the beginning of 2017 to $81,000 in March of this year, according to the Royal Chemistry Society. Battery manufacturers have responded by redesigning batteries to minimize cobalt. In May, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said the company had all but eliminated cobalt from batteries it uses in automobile and stationary batteries.

That keeps batteries cheap, possibly too cheap to recycle. Without valuable contents recyclers have little incentive to capture used batteries, Kaun said.

“Lithium-ion batteries have not yet developed the same kind of recycling infrastructure that have developed in lead-acid batteries,” he said. “There’s a significant issue that needs to be looked at here and how that recycling infrastructure is going to emerge. Part of it is scale. And part of it is understanding what the incentives are to develop that infrastructure and how you can also up-cycle or at least maintain higher grade battery materials that can be re-manufactured the same way lead-acid can be.”

Without a recycling market, battery owners are left with a disposal cost instead of a recycling incentive.

But academics are working on the problem, including

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