As it stands, we’re heading towards having a ‘mountain’ of spent batteries to deal with in a few years’ time. Two years ago we covered the issue, calculating that for the number of EVs sold in 2019 there would be well over 6000 tons of spent batteries to deal with once those cars either reach the end of their lives or need replacement cells.
Extrapolate that out to 2021 figures and you can basically triple that figure. Speaking at the time, chemistry and materials expert and researcher, Andrew Abbott from the University of Leicester, said: “Finding ways to recycle EV batteries will not only avoid a huge burden on landfill, it will also help us secure the supply of critical materials, such as cobalt and lithium, that surely hold the key to a sustainable automotive industry.”
The most recent move forward in the UK towards creating a more sustainable EV industry comes from RSBruce – a Sheffield-based precious metals recovery firm. It has invested in new equipment to offer whole lifecycle lithium-ion battery recycling. Its aim is to provide recycling services for end-of-life batteries within the UK, for the UK market. At present, much of our lithium-ion waste leaves the country, which is far from environmentally friendly.
Sam Haig, Battery Recycling Business Manager at RSBruce, said: “When it comes to recycling the batteries, we know most UK companies export their end-of-life units to Europe and other parts of the world for recycling and material recovery and as a result transport accounts for around a third of the cost associated with the service.
“Full-service lithium-ion battery recycling will not only reduce the cost for the customer, but it also lowers the carbon footprint, and it means we are preventing the loss of valuable materials by keeping the precious metals recovered here in the UK. Better still, our facility welcomes customer audits meaning our clients have peace of mind knowing their products are being recycled responsibly.”
Whilst RSBruce’s battery recycling – and almost every other large-scale battery recycling operation – is using traditional recovery methods, a battery R&D centre in the USA is innovating a method that increases the purity of the metals recovered and could drive down the cost of batteries in future.
Called froth floatation, it’s a process that has been used in the mining industry for over a century to separate various ores depending on whether they float or sink. Whilst cathode materials generally sink and are hard to separate, introducing a chemical that makes the lithium nickel manganese cobalt oxide float makes separation easier and has no effect on either the performance or purity of the cathode material.
Most existing recovery methods sacrifice quality and therefore are of less use to make new EV batteries. Froth floatation, which is being pioneered by US battery recycling body, the ReCell Centre, enables more recycled products to go back into the production lines of new batteries, improving environmental credentials and impacting costs by reducing the need for raw materials from mining.
With the EV market across the world growing almost exponentially and thousands more tons of battery materials needed to meet the demand, new recycling plants and methods will help keep the industry sustainable.