When Lithium Batteries Die: Are We Improving Our Recycling Habits?

Alongside the human tragedy of the Baltimore bridge collapse, there is an emerging environmental issue sitting alongside it.

The cargo ship that struck one of the piers of the Francis Scott Key Bridge was carrying 764 tons of hazardous materials, including corrosive liquids and lithium-ion batteries.

First responders noted a ‘sheen’ coming off the water, and as the Washington Post notes, investigators are trying to work out the short and long-term effects of the crash on local waterways.

While the Baltimore bridge collapse is an incident still under investigation, it is a reminder of the risks that lithium-ion batteries pose to our environment in a world that often treats them as disposable items.

There are conflicting accounts of what percentage of batteries get recycled once they reach end-of-life — 5% is the drastic figure sometimes painted, although it appears to be an older figure circulating for more than a decade, and not taking into account increased vigilance around recycling or the industry that has sprung up to capture the value from end-of-life batteries.

Techopedia sat with experts in the field of lithium battery recycling and the sustainable management sector to understand the threats lithium batteries pose and what is happening to improve the lithium battery recycling processes.

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Key Takeaways

  • There is a massive global lithium-ion battery waste crisis, with only a small percentage of batteries being recycled.
  • Lithium batteries, which usually end up in landfills, are a threat to the environment, potentially contaminating soil, air, and water resources.
  • Leading companies of the sector talk to Techopedia about the urgent need for sustainable recycling, new technologies, and innovation.
  • Building circular economies and meeting regulation landscape complexities are top priorities for leaders.

The State of Global Lithium Battery Recycling and Its Impacts

The lithium battery sector faces several paradoxes. While the sector promises to provide clean energy resources for the global green energy shift, there is no escaping that the mining of lithium and the production of batteries are great contributors to carbon emissions and energy use.

The Institute for Energy Research explains that the disposal of batteries is a threat to the environment.

“If the battery ends up in a landfill, its cells can release toxins, including heavy metals that can leak into the soil and groundwater.” 

CAS, a division of the American Chemical Society, estimated in 2022 that 8 million tons of lithium-ion waste entered landfills each year.

Techopedia spoke to Elliott Ethridge, Vice President of Global Sales of Ecobat, a leading global lithium battery recycling company that recently joined forces with VW to recycle lithium batteries in its facilities, about the issue.

“Lithium-ion batteries often contain nickel, cobalt, and manganese, which can be toxic if not handled properly. When landfilled, these metals can leach out and eventually impact the water supplies and local ecosystems”

Ethridge explained that the potential energy stored in these batteries can result in fires when not properly handled

“Therefore, it is critical that these batteries be recovered and recycled under proper care and expertise. Doing so ensures minimal impact to the environment and provides the opportunity to reuse these finite metals in battery applications.”

François-Michel Colomar, head of External Relations at Adionics — a cleantech specializing in liquid/liquid direct lithium extraction and battery recycling — also spoke to Techopedia.

“Recycling lithium batteries will allow us to limit and even eliminate the toxicity risk,” Colomar said.

“Recycling will also open the door to ‘urban mining’ and hence slow down resource depletion, reduce the carbon footprint, and diminish costs for transport, for example, raw material from mining countries.”

Deficits and Gaps, Opportunities and Innovation

The Research and Markets report Lithium-ion Battery Market: Trends, Opportunities, and Competitive Analysis to 2030 says the lithium-ion battery industry is on a significant upswing. The industry is expected to jump to an estimated $340.4 billion by 2030,  growth complemented by an impressive compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 17.6% between 2024-2030.

Driven by new technologies, devices, Internet of Things, battery storage projects, and EV demands, lithium-ion batteries are a “central pillar in the modern energy landscape,” the report concludes.

But despite the massive market growth, the industry still experiences wide gaps and deficits linked to sustainability, responsible mining, and recycling.

We asked Ethridge from Ecobat what the key opportunities and challenges associated with lithium battery recycling are.

“Variables including chemistry, form factor, and state of health all contribute to the technical challenges inherent to handling, storing, and recycling a battery.”

“Moreover, local, federal, and regional government regulations will impact how a battery needs to be recycled,” Ethridge said. “Finally, market forces will influence the profitability of recycling.”

“Recyclers must be well-versed in the regulatory landscape, have chemistry and form factor agnostic recycling processes, and be able to scale at the appropriate pace to maintain a sustainable long-term business model.”

Technology that increases the efficiencies of battery recycling processes can drive many benefits.

Colomar from Adionics explained the company is looking to position itself in the battery recycling market using its existing technology, designed to extract lithium from natural brine (lower CO2 footprint compared to hard rock mines), but also contribute to the circular economy.

Colomar explains that this technology would reduce the stress on the resources from the lithium triangle, reduce the dependency of countries without raw material by allowing the re-use of Lithium from used batteries, and drive positive impacts for the environment.

“The challenges are to develop a technology that will allow the highest recovery of lithium with the best quality in order to allow the lithium to be directly reused for the production of new batteries.”

Colomar agreed that current laws and rules are also a big challenge.

“The regulatory and policy frameworks are important, in the case of Europe, for example, regulations pushing for recycling, for raw material traceability, and with a limited CO2 footprint, will encourage the industry effort and investment.”

The Evolving Lithium-Battery Technology

While lithium-ion batteries are a well-established global technology, the design, technology, and components of batteries are constantly evolving and improving. In the past years, companies and scientists have taken lithium-battery technology to new levels, looking to improve efficiency, performance, sustainability, and life-cycle.

From high-density fast-charging lithium-sulphur batteries to batteries that allow 100% recovery of aluminum and 98% recovery of lithium, or NASA’s solid-state batteries, which replace lithium and can double or even triple the energy production, the modern battery sector is still taking its final form with new tech emerging.

Ethridge said that across the value chain, companies are looking to improve the safety and sustainability of these battery materials.

“Shipping companies are investing in specialized shipping containers equipped with fire suppression technology. Cell and pack designers are exploring new design architectures that allow for individual modules to be diagnosed and swapped out.

 

“Metal recovery methods are being optimized both at a black mass and a hydro met level. And new, more sustainable battery chemistries are constantly being explored.”

The Tech Top Battery Recycling Companies Are Developing

Steve Cotton, CEO of Aqua Metals — the public company (Nasdaq: AQMS) that specializes in closed-loop metal recycling to produce the world’s purest metals — spoke to Techopedia about his vision for battery recycling.

“The environmental threat posed by end-of-lifecycle lithium-ion batteries is significant but can be addressed.”

“The expected 6.5 million tons of batteries becoming available for recycling between 2025 and 2030 highlight the urgent need for sustainable recycling practices,” Cotton said.

“Landfilling is not a viable option due to the risk of fire hazards and the loss of valuable materials that could be recovered and returned to the supply chain, reducing the need for new raw material extraction.”

Cotton said that Aqua Metals is now focused on developing and deploying recycling technologies that not only mitigate the environmental risks but also support a circular economy for critical battery materials.

“Recycling lithium-ion batteries presents significant opportunities and challenges. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, recycling could meet one-third of the nation’s cathode material needs by 2030, offering a faster, more sustainable supply chain alternative to new mining operations and potentially integrating with battery manufacturing processes.”

However, Cotton said that the predominant recycling methods, including pyrometallurgy and hydrometallurgy, pose environmental and safety concerns due to their waste production and pollution.

“Hydrometallurgy, for instance, can generate between 1.65 to 2.4 tonnes of sodium sulfate waste per tonne of battery mass recycled, underscoring the need for cleaner recycling technologies,” Cotton said.

Cotton explained that their technology has a different approach: it is an electric-powered, water-based process tech that can minimize contamination while recycling and reduce risks associated with traditional recycling methods.

“Innovative projects addressing lithium battery end-of-life solutions are on the rise. To enhance the efficiency and sustainability of lithium battery recycling, significant advancements are necessary to address current waste and emissions problems.”

Meeting Recycling Market Demand

As Ecobat leverages the opportunities that battery recycling presents and works to open their new plants in Hettstedt, Germany, Casa Grande, Arizona, and a third plant planned for Darlaston, U.K., Ethridge says that the demand for lithium battery materials continues to grow.

“The market will demand consistent evolution in its ability to manufacture, transport, optimize, and eventually recycle these batteries in a circular way. Collaboration at every point along the value chain will be crucial.”

Ethridge added that this evolution and the development of a circular value chain also requires continued education on hazardous materials as lawmakers and governments seek to find equitable and balanced ways to regulate the market for sustainable success.

Colomar from Adionic told Techopedia that the company is now working on an adaptation of its technology which will allow them to recycle lithium before all other metals contained in the battery.

“This will allow us to increase the amount of lithium recovered (today, some lithium can be lost throughout the process of recovery of each metal, Nickel, cobalt, etc).”

Colomar explained that this innovation will increase the purity of the recycled lithium, drive a reduction in demand for post-processing (refining), and help obtain battery-grade products that can be used for battery production again.

“Today, the lithium recycled is not directly at the battery grade purity needed for Gigafactories making lithium batteries; hence lithium is either used for other applications or needs an extra step of purification (more energy, higher CO2 footprint)”

The Bottom Line

The lithium-ion battery boom presents both opportunities and challenges. While batteries are crucial for clean energy solutions and the global shift to green energy, their production and end-of-life present serious environmental implications.

Millions of tons end up in landfills, potentially leaking toxins, but companies in the sector continue making progress and looking into new technologies that can drive and sustain a circular economy. Additionally, experts explain the benefits of government incentives and the complexities of regulations.

From EVs to computers and smart devices, the future of technology, dependent on lithium batteries, must confront the recycling and environmental challenges that batteries present if they plan to build a sustainable tomorrow.

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Ray Fernandez
Senior Technology Journalist

Ray is an independent journalist with 15 years of experience, focusing on the intersection of technology with various aspects of life and society. He joined Techopedia in 2023 after publishing in numerous media, including Microsoft, TechRepublic, Moonlock, Hackermoon, VentureBeat, Entrepreneur, and ServerWatch. He holds a degree in Journalism from Oxford Distance Learning, and two specializations from FUNIBER in Environmental Science and Oceanography. When Ray is not working, you can find him making music, playing sports, and traveling with his wife and three kids.