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Can Australia’s low li-ion battery recycling rates be overcome?

Only 2% of litihium-ion batteries are currently being recycled in Australia, so reveals a new report published by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). An estimated 3300 tonnes of discarded li-ion batteries are recycled across the nation annually.

Battery recycling in Australia is in need of a make-over, CSIRO data has demonstrated. As much as 98% (or 150 000 tonnes) of lead-acid batteries were already recycled back in 2010, while only 3300 tonnes and 2% of li-ion batteries are recycled today.

It is urged that up to 95% of li-ion battery components can be converted into new batteries or serve other high-end industries. Not least, the li-ion waste stream is growing rapidly; said to be up by 20% per year to exceed 137 000 tonnes by 2036.

Millions wasted

CSIRO laments that the lion’s share of Australia’s end-of-life batteries is shipped overseas while a significant portion of the waste ends up in landfill. Moreover, it is believed that between AU$ 813m and AU$ 3 billion worth of valuable components are still being dumped in landfill. Besides wasting materials, this practice also poses fire risks and cause contamination to the environment.

It is pointed out that there were approximately 12 million end-of-life mobile phones in Australia in 2014, and an additional 22.3 million old mobile phones were being kept in storage. In 2015-16, MobileMuster collected around 76 tonnes of mobile phones which included 16 500 kg of (mostly li-ion) batteries.

‘The use of large energy storage batteries is rapidly emerging in Australia, most widely highlighted by the South Australian 100 MW installation in 2017. This is currently the largest energy storage installation of its kind in the world,’ the report underlines.

The number one issue

‘Australia suffers from the often quoted tyranny of distance to markets and a distributed population’, warns CSIRO battery research leader Dr Anand Bhatt. He believes it is not too late to turn the situation around. ‘Australia could become a world leader in the re-use and recycling of lithium-ion batteries,’ he declares.  

‘The lack of consumer awareness of recycling options is the number one issue that must be addressed in order to increase Australia’s battery collection rate,’ Bhatt recommends. A nation-wide targeted consumer awareness campaign and education programme will bridge any ‘information gaps’, boost collection results and spark investments in recycling technology.

Sulfur vs. cobalt and nickel

CSIRO says it is currently investigating the development of new battery materials such as sulfur cathodes as well as evaluation of next generation batteries. ‘Using the knowledge gained from these activities, will determine the impact on recycling processes if cobalt and nickel are removed,’ the organisation explains.

The data will then feed into the development of technical processes for battery recycling. The goal is to develop a recycling process that is flexible instead of dependent on a single li-ion battery chemistry type – and that enables economic value to still be extracted.

Realising a circular economy in Australia would result in an increase of 25 000 jobs and a 27 % decrease in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 compared to a business as usual scenario.

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