Lithium ion batteries: reduce, recycle or reuse?
The growing EV market, and rising lithium demand raise questions about the lithium supply and the increasing prices. Reducing the amount of lithium needed is an option; recycling and even reusing can be a good answer as well.
Today, recycling rates of lithium ion batteries are below 1% worldwide. Higher rates are possible technically, but the variety of chemical processes used in lithium ion batteries prevents the development of standardised recycling processes. At the moment, there are no large-scale recycling plants, but a few pilot plants are operated by companies such as Umicore (Belgium), Accurec (Germany) and American Manganese (US).
The tipping point
The high cost of recycling compared to mining raw material complicates commercial development. Economies of scale are needed and will come when the first lithium ion EV batteries reach their end of life, expected around 2025. On top of that, ecological and geopolitical reasons might push for recycling rather than mining, especially if lithium prices keep on rising.
In the meantime, China and the EU have introduced regulations to hold carmakers responsible for recycling; and by reusing or recycling, OEMs can become more independent of raw material supply. Nevertheless, both motivations apply more for cobalt, copper, and nickel, since the cost of lithium only counts for up to 10% of the production cost of the battery and the most efficient technology to recycle lithium has yet to be developed.
3rd R: reuse
Besides recycling, OEMs, such as Nissan, Renault, Daimler, BMW, and Siemens are investigating the reuse of the EV battery as an energy storage unit. Nissan, Daimler, and BMW even already have commercialised residential storage products. Bloomberg estimates that a third of the used EV batteries will enter a second life after 2025.
Eventually, lithium ion batteries might end up in a closed loop recycling system of OEMs, from manufacturing, over installing, and eventually recycling, after a second life.
Image: Accurec is one of the companies specialised in recycling lithium batteries from its plant in Krefeld, Germany.