Tackling EV battery recycling with tech
Robotics, AI and automation help overcome circular challenges Metal Tech News - February 8, 2023
Last updated 2/17/2023 at 8:12am
Electric vehicles are a major player in the decarbonization of the global transport sector. The industry is under pressure to seek the shortest, most profitable route to a renewable future, which puts its most expensive asset – battery production – at risk of potentially redistributing rather than neutralizing carbon usage.
Nowhere is this pressure more acute than in the growing demand for a more sustainable and scalable battery lifecycle.
Due to roughly 15 years of operation before an EV battery pack needs disposal, recycling industry capacities are lagging behind the market boom. Coming up in 2030, early generations of EV batteries will begin reaching end-of-life from models that were not especially constructed with their next stages in mind.
In the U.S. and Canada, domestic mineral production is at risk of being outstripped by the growing market. There is also a disconnect arising over resource-intensive production and materials imported from unstable regions driving the current supply chain. Standard recycling facilities are not set up to reclaim lithium or properly dispose of EV batteries, which are considered part of the hazardous waste stream due to the electrical and chemical components having a flammable nature.
Common EV batteries contain various lithium-ion chemistries, nickel-manganese-cobalt, lead-acid, and the alternate nickel-metal hydride used in hybrids. The U.S. Geological Survey has designated lithium, cobalt, manganese, and nickel as "critical materials" at risk of disruption per the Energy Act of 2020.
It's not enough to make the cheapest battery anymore. Conscientious oversight and management of environmental and social impacts both increase investment potential and satisfy scrutiny of the more complex costs of going green.
Problems as opportunities
Among the top commercial solutions being explored for battery materials is urban mining – locally sourcing components from spent products and integrating them back into the next generation of batteries.
Ambitious startups across North America are complementing domestic production, recycling electronics and rehabilitating used mineral supplies to support a more circular economy. This results in less international shipping, traditional mining, and raw materials processing.
Founders and CEOs fresh from the battery manufacturing space are now setting out to commercialize cleaner and more efficient recycling technologies, gaining momentum and support.
Increasing numbers of newly constructed and dedicated materials recovery facilities are springing up in response to the needs of nearby gigafactories, and investment opportunities abound within this fast-growing industry as it evolves more profitable and sustainable technologies.
Repurposing stored energy
While EV battery technology progresses toward better chemistry, reduced size, more power, and longer life, clean energy harnessed through solar, wind and hydroelectric power also requires similar storage solutions.
Retired EV batteries typically retain as much as 50-70% of their designed energy storage capacity, which is otherwise wasted by traditional recycling methods. New companies are finding ways to re-deploy these batteries into multiple second-life applications with little to no modification required.
B2U (Battery 2nd Use) Storage Solutions in California utilizes retired EV batteries in a plug-and-play system to eliminate repurposing costs and extend their use by a decade or more, storing and selling excess power from solar farms to the grid as needed.
EVB360, out of Montreal, is remanufacturing Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt EV batteries to create energy storage devices that can be used off-grid. The company is also testing a solar-integrating prototype for communities in developing countries without easy access to electricity.
Nevada-based battery recycling company Redwood Materials uses residual energy in second-life EV batteries to power its operation, converting the free stored electricity into heat for electrolyte extraction from old battery cells. The retrieved materials can then be repurposed for new battery production.
Smelting is not suitable for the recovery of lithium and renders plastic packaging unrecyclable. Proper control of toxic emissions such as fluorine, phosphorus, sulfur, and heavy metal particulates is also costly.
Canadian company Li-Cycle bypasses carbon-heavy smelting entirely with a proprietary spoke and hub technology that is specifically designed for recycling lithium-ion batteries from spent consumer electronics and EVs.
At its spoke facilities, batteries are shredded with a submerged method that reduces risk of fire, produces no wastewater, and recovers more than 95% of the original lithium-ion battery's materials.
Li-Cycle's spoke facilities reclaim aluminum and copper with a process that is cheaper and requires less resource consumption than traditional metal recycling. The cathode materials – lithium, nickel, cobalt, and manganese – are isolated into a mixed material known in the industry as black mass and extracted at separate hub facilities to be reused in new batteries.
Another battery recycling firm, Massachusetts-based Ascend Elements, utilizes a patented hydro-to-cathode process that recovers more commodity metals than conventional acid dissolution.
Shredded batteries go into a chemical leaching bath to extract cathode ingredients in their pure atomic state. The cathode precursor nickel-cobalt-manganese hydroxide is then filtered out, and lithium is added, which yields new cathode active material.
This process results in cheaper yet better-performing battery materials than refined virgin ores, per a study published in November 2021 in the journal "Joule."
Automating battery recycling
EV battery discharge and disassembly by hand is a traditionally labor-intensive and dangerous process costing too much to scale. Automation is safer and more efficient but comes up against proprietary differences between units.
Oak Ridge National Laboratory's robots can precisely dismantle battery housings to whatever degree is required, negating any risk of human exposure to toxic chemicals or dangerous voltage discharge. The system can be reconfigured to any type of battery stack, programmed to refurbish or reconfigure batteries as stationary energy storage or disassemble them down to the cell level for materials recovery.
Incentivized by the lack of local commercial-scale recycling facilities, American Battery Technology Company has begun programming off-the-shelf manufacturing equipment to simply reverse the assembly process.
Machines disassemble spent battery packs down to anodes, cathodes and separators. The fully mechanized process increases the amount of recovered materials while reducing the costs of processing. This also cuts the expense of chemical agents used in extraction and separation processes. ABTC further refines the materials and sells them as a domestic source of critical minerals.
AI for the win
The use of artificial intelligence can standardize data point collection, tracing new batteries through key stages such as life extension, reuse and repurposing, and final recovery of materials.
A better understanding of the inner workings of damaged and retired batteries can dovetail into the robotic automation process and create seamless asset recovery that is not only efficient and economical but, when combined with machine perception and learning, can be entirely automated.
The World Economic Forum's Global Battery Alliance, an international collaboration of public and private organizations, is piloting a "battery passport" platform designed to enable tracing of standards compliance, material provenance, chemical properties, manufacturing history and performance across the battery's lifespan, all of which is accessible and incentivizing to stakeholders in the value chain.
Hitachi High-Tech Europe, one of the partners in the passport, has developed a rapid battery testing technology to further streamline lifecycle management. This system accurately identifies performance degradation, flags batteries for replacement, and uploads charge and discharge data more quickly and safely to the cloud. In a circular economy, more effective use of resources promotes economic growth.
The GBA and fellow major players in battery recycling support this shared transparency and responsibility for the lifecycle loop. Scaling battery reuse to the industrial volume needed for a truly clean energy transition requires international cooperation and will facilitate major cost reduction for automotive, battery and original equipment manufacturers, energy storage system operators, refurbishers and recyclers, as well as the end-user.
Ensuring optimal materials sourcing, green production and use, and final arrival back to the top of the supply chain makes the journey toward a net-zero future exponentially shorter, safer, and more profitable.