Lithium ion battery recycling: An overview

Lithium ion batteries recycling.

Electric vehicles (EVs) are all the rage - and might be the centerpiece of the clean energy revolution. There's a catch, however. Along with all those electric cars comes an equal amount of lithium-ion batteries to power them, and recycling those batteries is a complicated but necessary problem to solve. What'sHome batteries like the Tesla Powerwall are usually made of very similar materials to EV batteries, so there's even more to recycle.

Like solar panel recycling, it's expensive and difficult to separate the components of a lithium-ion battery to the point where they can be recycled and reused. Nowadays, lithium-ion battery recycling exists, but not nearly on the scale and at the efficiency we need it to as batteries become more and more popular.

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Key takeaways

  • Lead-acid batteries already have a well-developed recycling process. If you're looking to recycle a lead-acid solar battery, it's relatively easy.

  • Lithium-ion batteries are recycled much less often than their lead-acid counterparts, and it's not a very efficient process yet.

  • By improving our lithium-ion battery recycling process, we can save money and protect the natural environment.

  • Start comparing your options for a home battery installation on EnergySage today.

There are two major reasons why recycling solar batteries and electric vehicle batteries is important: recovering materials and protecting the environment.

Recycling batteries preserves and repurposes rare and essential materials

There are many valuable and useful materials in lithium-ion batteries: cobalt, iron, and nickel, to name a few. Especially when it comes to metals like cobalt and nickel, it's both financially and environmentally costly to mine and process these materials, so reclaiming and reusing them is useful whenever possible. Rare metals like cobalt will only become harder to mine as time goes on, which leads to more money spent on their extraction.

Recycling batteries is good for the environment

Aside from the monetary benefits of recycling valuable battery parts, just like recycling plastics, it's good for the environment to recycle batteries. Those metals we mentioned above? Some of them are toxic and can contaminate the natural environment and our water supply if they're just tossed in a landfill.

Moreover, mining is a particularly destructive practice for the environment. There are numerous adverse effects of mining the different materials in solar batteries, and the more we can recycle those materials, the less we'll have to keep mining them.

Large lead-acid batteries are used around the country and world in cars and as stationary storage systems, and only over the past decade or so has the deployment of lithium-ion batteries accelerated. Lithium-ion technologies are the fastest-growing segment of energy storage options available, a trend many analysts expect to continue for many years. The rapidly growing electric vehicle market is mostly driving this acceleration.

Today, traditional lead-acid batteries (like the ones in gas-powered cars) can be recycled relatively easily. They've been around long, and scientists have developed and refined processes to reclaim their materials. Additionally, a lead-acid battery's chemical makeup lends itself perfectly to being recycled: its components are easy to separate and don’t lose value in the recycling process. This leads to more than 90 percent of all lead-acid batteries being recycled today.

Lithium-ion batteries aren't quite as far along as their lead-acid counterparts, and the current recycling process is much more complex. Most lithium-ion batteries recycled today go through a process called "shredding,” where the battery is shredded into tiny pieces. After shredding, this so-called "black mass" is processed to extract valuable metals like cobalt and nickel. It's a start, but this process is relatively energy-intensive and lowers the value of the extracted components.

In the United States, recycling lithium-ion batteries usually involves contacting a specialized recycling company. For example, Li-Cycle is a Canadian-based lithium-ion battery recycling company with plans to expand its U.S. presence in the next few years. Not sure who to contact? You can use Earth911's battery recycling search tool to find a nearby drop-off location.

Change may be on the horizon for lithium-ion battery recycling. In February of 2021, the Biden administration kicked off a 100-day review of four key supply chains, one of which was batteries. Led by the Department of Energy (DOE), that report has been submitted and contains several immediate and longer-term recommendations. Those recommendations include:

  • Strengthening U.S.-based manufacturing grants for battery research and development

  • Installing stationary battery storage on federal property

  • Developing financing programs to support the EV battery supply chain

  • Electrifying the federal vehicle fleet

Notably, details about the specific battery recycling program expected to be included in the administration's recommendations haven't yet been released. The program would likely fund research like what's being conducted at the Recell Center, among other provisions. According to the U.S. government, the increasing number of EV purchases will add eight million tons of battery waste to landfills by 2040, and any plan from the current administration will look to get ahead of that flood of scrap.

Home batteries (like EVs) are rapidly gaining popularity and for a good reason. Especially when paired with solar panels, a home battery can help you save money on electric bills and keep the lights on during a blackout. What is the best way to ensure you're getting the best deal on a home storage system? Compare multiple options on the EnergySage Marketplace. On EnergySage, installers compete for your business, so you can know you're getting quoted high-quality products at competitive prices. Start your home energy journey today.

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