How to recycle cells?

In this article, we cover the various ways one can recycle battery cells. Furthermore, we also discuss the various ways to safely dispose of battery cells when recycling may not be a viable option.

How to recycle cells?

You can recycle old cells in the following ways:

  • To find out if your neighbourhood has a collection programme or an upcoming event, contact your local solid waste authority.
  • Using Earth911’s Recycling Search, look for recycling locations that accept single-use batteries in your region.
  • Look for a battery recycling programme that allows mail-in submissions. The majority of these programmes will offer you a container to keep spent batteries in, which can then be shipped once they’re full. Both Battery Solutions and Call2Recycle provide mail-in recycling services for alkaline batteries.

Li-ion batteries – the most common type of battery cells

Electronics, toys, wireless headphones, portable power tools, small and big appliances, electric cars, and electrical energy storage devices all employ lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries. 

They can threaten human health or the environment if they are not properly maintained at the end of their useful life.

The high “energy density” of Li-ion batteries accounts for a substantial part of the rising market demand for these batteries. 

The amount of energy that a system holds in a given amount of space is referred to as “energy density.” While carrying the same amount of energy, lithium batteries can be smaller and lighter than other types of batteries. 

Consumer acceptance of smaller portable and cordless items has accelerated as a result of this shrinking.

Benefits of recycling Li-ion batteries

Li-ion batteries should be recycled for a variety of reasons, according to battery experts and environmentalists. The elements recovered might be utilised to create new batteries, decreasing the cost of production. 

Those materials now account for more than half of the cost of a battery. The most costly components of the cathode, cobalt and nickel, have seen significant price fluctuations in recent years. 

Cobalt and nickel are now trading for around $27,500 per metric tonne and $12,600 per metric tonne, respectively. Cobalt was worth more than $90,000 per metric tonne in 2018.

The quantities of these metals, as well as lithium and manganese, in many types of Li-ion batteries surpass those found in natural ores, making wasted batteries similar to highly enriched ore.

The price of batteries and electric cars should decline if those metals can be recovered from old batteries on a wide scale and at a lower cost than natural ore.

Recycling has the potential to minimise the amount of waste that ends up in landfills, in addition to the possible economic advantages. 

Cobalt, nickel, manganese, and other metals contained in batteries may easily escape through the casing of underground batteries and pollute soil and groundwater, posing a hazard to ecosystems and human health. 

The same is true with lithium fluoride salts (LiPF6 is typical) in organic solvents used in the electrolyte of a battery.

Batteries may have a harmful impact on the environment not just at the end of their lives, but even before they are made. 

More recycling means less mining of virgin material and less environmental damage. 

Mining for some battery metals, for example, necessitates processing metal-sulphide ore, which is energy expensive and generates SOx, which can contribute to acid rain.

A reduction in the reliance on mining for battery materials may also help to reduce the depletion of these raw resources. 

Despite the fact that these forecasts are “complex and ambiguous,” the researchers discovered that global lithium and nickel stocks are sufficient to support significant expansion in battery manufacture. 

However, battery production might reduce world cobalt reserves by more than 10%. There are also political costs and drawbacks that Li-ion battery recycling might help mitigate. 

According to a CSIRO analysis, the Democratic Republic of the Congo produces 50% of the world’s cobalt, which is linked to armed conflict, illicit mining, human rights violations, and damaging environmental practices. 

Recycling batteries and developing cathodes with a lower cobalt percentage might help minimise reliance on problematic foreign sources and improve supply chain security.

Challenges of recycling an Li-ion battery

Economic reasons can offer a justification for recycling batteries, but they can also make a case for not doing so. Large price swings in raw battery materials, for example, have thrown the economics of recycling into doubt. 

The recent huge decline in cobalt’s price raises issues about whether recycling or reusing Li-ion batteries is a better financial decision than making new batteries with fresh ingredients. 

In other words, if the price of cobalt falls, recycled cobalt will find it difficult to compete with mined cobalt on price, and manufacturers would choose mined material over recycled, putting recyclers out of business. 

Another long-term financial concern for companies considering battery recycling is whether a different type of battery, such as Li air, or a different vehicle propulsion system, such as hydrogen-powered fuel cells.

These will gain a significant foothold in the electric-vehicle market in the coming years, reducing the demand for Li-ion batteries to be recycled.

Lithium cobalt oxide cathodes are used in several Li-ion batteries (LCO). Others employ materials such as lithium nickel manganese cobalt oxide (NMC), lithium nickel cobalt aluminium oxide, lithium iron phosphate, and others. 

And within one kind of cathode—for example, NMC—the proportions of the components might vary significantly between manufacturers. 

To match the demands of customers buying recycled materials, recyclers may need to filter and segregate batteries by composition, complicating the process and rising prices.

The battery’s construction makes recycling much more difficult. Li-ion batteries are small, sophisticated devices that come in a range of sizes and forms and cannot be dismantled. 

A cathode, anode, separator, and electrolyte are all found in each cell.

An electrochemically active powder (LCO, NMC, etc.) is combined with carbon black and attached to an aluminium-foil current collector with a polymeric substance like poly(vinylidene fluoride) (PVDF). 

Graphite, PVDF, and copper foil are commonly used in anodes. Separators are thin, porous plastic sheets that insulate the electrodes to avoid short circuiting. 

They are commonly made of polyethylene or polypropylene. A solution of LiPF6 dissolved in a combination of ethylene carbonate and dimethyl carbonate is commonly used as the electrolyte.

Several thousand cells are integrated into modules in large battery packs that power electric cars. 

Sensors, safety devices, and circuitry that regulates battery performance are all included in the packs, adding another degree of complexity and cost to disassembly and recycling.

A recycler must deal with all of these battery components and materials in order to extract the precious metals and other elements. 

Lead-acid automobile batteries, on the other hand, are simple to disassemble, and the lead, which makes up roughly 60% of the battery’s weight, can be readily separated from the other components. 

As a consequence, virtually all of the lead in these batteries is recycled in the United States, greatly exceeding the rates of recycling for glass, paper, and other materials.

How a Lead Battery Is Recycled

If a lithium-ion battery is recycled with lead batteries, it poses a high risk of fire and explosion. While batteries may appear to be the same, it is critical to distinguish between lead and lithium-ion batteries.

The battery is shattered in a hammer mill, which is a machine that shatters batteries into fragments.

The shattered battery components are placed in a vat, with the lead and heavier elements sinking to the bottom and the plastic rising to the top. 

The liquids are taken off and the polypropylene fragments are scraped away, leaving the lead and heavy metals. After that, each of the materials embarks on its own recycling path. 

Plastic

The bits of polypropylene are cleaned, blown dry, and transferred to a plastic recycler, where they are fused together into an almost-liquid condition. 

The molten plastic is forced through an extruder, which creates tiny, homogeneous plastic pellets. The pellets are sold to a battery case maker, and the cycle begins again.

Lead

In smelting furnaces, the lead grids, lead oxide, and other lead pieces are cleaned and then melted together.

Ingot moulds are filled with molten lead. Hogs are large ingots that weigh around 2,000 pounds. Pigs are smaller ingots that weigh 65 pounds. 

The impurities, also known as dross, rise to the surface of the still-molten lead in the ingot moulds after a few minutes. The ingots are permitted to cool while the dross is scraped away.

When the ingots are cold enough to handle, they are taken from the moulds and delivered to battery makers, where they are remelted and used to make fresh lead plates and other components for new batteries.

Sulphuric acid

There are two ways to deal with used battery acid. An industrial chemical, similar to baking soda, is used to neutralise the acid. As a result, the acid is converted to water. 

To ensure that the water satisfies clean water requirements, it is treated, cleansed, and tested. The wastewater is then discharged into the public sewage system.

Acid may also be processed and converted to sodium sulphate, an odourless white powder used in laundry detergent, glass, and textile manufacture. 

This method transforms a waste substance into a valuable product. Through sophisticated recycling procedures, acid may also be retrieved and utilised in new battery products.

Conclusion

In this article, we have covered the various ways to recycle used batteries. Furthermore, we have also discussed the benefits as well as the challenges associated with recycling batteries.

FAQs

Will we run out of lithium for electric car batteries?

Yes, there are chances that we will run out of lithium for electric car batteries in the future. The amount of lithium on the planet is estimated to be between 30 and 90 million tonnes. 

That implies we’ll run out at some point, but we don’t know when. According to PV Magazine, it may happen as early as 2040 if electric cars consume 20 million tonnes of lithium by then.

What will replace lithium-ion batteries?

The usage of sodium-ion (Na-ion) batteries instead of lithium-ion batteries is one of the most promising options. 

In a number of applications, Na-ion batteries provide significant benefits over typical Li-ion batteries. Lithium and sodium are both alkali metals that are found in close proximity on the periodic table.

What percent of a lithium battery can be recycled?

Recycling processes today recover approximately 25% to 96% of the materials of a lithium-ion battery cell.

References

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