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China and South Korea Lead the Charge of Recycling Lithium Batteries

published: 2019-07-18 10:33

As the rise of the electric vehicles and the innovation of ICT products continues, the battery usage as well as battery waste will increase. The industry analysts have estimated that there will be 2.2 million tons of lithium battery waste worldwide by 2030. Are the governments ready for this enormous volume of lithium battery waste?

It is expected that more and more car makers will invest in the R&D of the electric vehicles (EV) in the future. An upcoming flood of retired EV batteries is also anticipated. Now is the best time to get started with the research regarding the recycling of batteries. Thus, not only the environmental contamination from the batteries can be avoided, but also the dependence on the imported raw materials can be reduced.

The London-based research and consulting group, Circular Energy Storage, has collected information from 50 lithium recycling companies, which shows that 97,000 tons of batteries are recycled worldwide in 2018. Most of the recycling plants and laboratories are in China, South Korea, Europe, Japan and the United States and Canada. Due to the high recovery rates of materials, China and South Korea have become the dominant players, recycling 70% of the retired lithium batteries. 67,000 tons of batteries are recycled by China and 18,000 tons by South Korea.

Apparently the proportion of lithium batteries recycled has exceeded the conventional expectations. More than 70% of the lithium battery recycling businesses are from China and South Korea. Nearly 100,000 tons of the batteries are recycled, which is only half of the batteries that reached end-of-life. Hans Eric Melin, Director of Circular Energy Storage, asserted that most of those batteries are older than the baseline age of the EU, which is three years old. This means that, instead of dumping batteries into the landfill, it is thought to be more profitable to keep the batteries in the devices longer than their service life and then export legally.

Melin claimed that Li-ion batteries are still recycled in various places, but may not always be done in the locations where the businesses operate. This does not mean that there is no recycling technology in the local area. Rather, it could be due to the lack of a comprehensive and large-scale recycling planning. Linda L. Gaines of Argonne National Laboratory, A specialist in materials and life-cycle analysis, pointed out that the reason for the low recovery rate may be due to problems with recycling technology, economy, logistics and management.

Due to the various factors above, the situation is akin to the classic "chicken or the egg causality dilemma". The battery industry is lacking a recycling path with high economic benefits at the moment. Many researchers and manufacturers are not concerned about the battery recycling issues. They may be more concerned about lowering costs, extending battery life longevity and increasing charge capacity.

Melin also indicated that currently there are several recycling businesses that have used the waste batteries as the materials for the new batteries, which is what a circular economy is all about. However, the real challenge for countries from Europe and America is how to get waste batteries. Compared with the European and American markets, the price of waste batteries in Asia is more attractive. Besides, there are already many Asian battery plants expanding to the European market.

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