UK Researchers Push for Automation in Recycling of Lithium-Ion Batteries to Reduce the Environmental Impact of Electric Vehicles

published: 2019-11-20 9:30 | editor: | category: News

Lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) are now a necessity in everyday life. They not only power typical consumer electronic devices but have also found applications in transportation (e.g., electric vehicles) and utility infrastructure (i.e., energy storage systems). While LIBs have brought a lot of convenience to the society, they are creating some serious problems for the environment as well. Recovering materials from spent LIBs is a very difficult and risky task for the recycling industry. Recently, a team of researchers from several universities in the UK have jointly published an article in the journal Nature calling for governments and the public to pay more attention to the issue of battery recycling. The article states that efforts should be made to introduce automation solutions to the recycling of powertrain batteries that propel electric vehicles. The authors warn that ignoring this issue will lead to a waste management problem of an enormous scale.

Initially, LIBs were mainly designed for portable consumer electronic devices such as notebook computers and smartphones. However, the range of their applications has widened dramatically in recent years. For instance, the rapid market growth of electric vehicles has caused a demand surge for higher capacity LIBs. As more battery products for electric vehicles are released in the market, the question of where these batteries will end up after reaching the end of their life cycle has also become more urgent.

The Nature article estimates that every one million electric vehicles will produce 250,000 metric tons of spent LIBs during their lifetime. How to dispose such a massive amount of industrial waste in an environmentally responsible manner is a daunting challenge. The authors, who are mostly from the University of Birmingham and the University of Leicester, believe that this potential ecological crisis could be transformed into a lucrative economic opportunity. There is a range of existing and newly emerged technologies to assist in disassembling battery packs and recovering valuable materials that can be returned to the battery supply chain.

LIBs contain numerous rare and expensive metals. In addition to lithium that is present in the electrolyte, there are also cobalt, nickel, and manganese that form the cathode. Devising methods to safely and economically extract these metals from defunct batteries will help battery manufacturers reduce their reliance on material imports from abroad. Moreover, an increase in the recycling of battery metals will slow down the expansion of mining activities worldwide and thus limit the associated pollutions.

The Nature article emphasizes that innovative technologies are needed to fully or partially automate the recycling process. Raising the throughput rate is essential in creating schemes for reducing, reusing, and recycling battery materials.

Nevertheless, the potential solutions for dealing with discarded LIBs sound easy in theory but are actually much harder to put into practice. According to the Nature article, governments and engineers from various fields will face many thorny challenges when setting up a system for recycling LIBs used in electric vehicles. Although some used batteries can be repurposed for other power storage applications, determining the scope of their usage and their state of health can be very complicated. This is not to mention the costs of modifying these used batteries into functioning second-use batteries and maintaining them. As for end-of-life recycling, further optimization is needed to raise and stabilize the throughput rate for the disassembly of battery packs and recovery of useful materials.

Batteries come in various types to suit different kinds of devices and equipment, such as smartphones, notebook computers, and electric vehicles. Even within a particular product category, there is a lot of diversity in terms of battery cell package and module design. In the case of batteries for electric vehicles, cell packages that are available for this application include the cylindrical, prismatic, and pouch formats. Like smartphone batteries, electric vehicle batteries have never been standardized with respect to form factor and specifications. Hence, each type of battery has its own unique challenges for recyclers. For example, cylindrical cells are packed together into a module using an epoxy resin that is hard to remove and break down. Cells of other formats also require specialized tools to dismantle.

The Nature article points out that it is practically impossible to safely and efficiently remove powertrain batteries from electric vehicles and disassemble them by hand, given how they have been put together and set up. The existing commercialized recycling processes involve using heavy equipment to cut up battery cells and then grind the shredded pieces into a powder that can be sieved repeatedly to extract valuable metals. This approach is not particularly efficient and reduces the economic value of the waste stream. The authors of the article contend that the issues surrounding separation and sorting of battery components could be resolved if battery manufacturers make efforts to address them during the product design phase.

Paul Christensen, a professor at the UK’s Newcastle University and one of the co-authors, said that more R&D is needed to maximize the recovery of materials from powertrain batteries. The recycling industry has to catch up technologically just as advances are being made with respect to the safety and performances of LIBs in electric vehicles.

 (This article is an English translation of news content provided by EnergyTrend’s media partner TechNews. Photo credit: Shutterstock.)

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