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Recycling vital to meet sky high battery demand

ReCell Center scientists, with Jeffrey Spangenberger in the middle.

‘It’s clear to see that the demand for electric car battery materials cannot be met without recycling,’ says Jeffrey Spangenberger of Argonne National Laboratory in the US. Speaking at the recent E-waste World Expo, he assured delegates that the global fleet represents a large urban mine for making new e-mobility batteries.

America will have a little shy of 2 million tonnes of depleted electric vehicle batteries by 2040. China and Europe will reach this stage far sooner, by 2032 and 2034, respectively.

‘I don’t have to say that lithium-ion battery recycling can definitely be done today. Existing processes are fairly mature. However, they produce lower value products, like metal salts, that are not revenue positive without tipping fees for many chemistries,’ Spangenberger observes. ‘The US is trailing other countries when it comes to battery recycling. We’re trying to pick up steam and become a leader.’

In a bid to amp up innovation, US researchers from all over the country joined forces to set up the Recell Center in 2019. The EUR 5 million initiative strives to provide stability to the battery supply chain ‘to keep prices from swaying’ while cutting back on mining rare earths. ‘A concrete goal is to bring drive battery pack costs down so that everyone can afford an electric car, which isn’t the case today,’ the researcher states.

Cathode-to-cathode

The recycling facility has four main focus areas; direct cathode recycling (cathode separation, binder removal, relithiation, and compositional change), other material recovery (electrolyte, graphite, electrode/foil), design for recycling, plus modelling and analysis.

‘We focus mainly on direct recycling. You see, if you can take out and fix a cathode, put it back in a battery, that makes a lot more sense than recycling the cathode into metal powder and getting only a third to half the value of the actual component back,’ Spangenberger explains. ‘The thing is not to break or damage the cathode while doing so.’ He admits that handling can be challenging, but expects this ‘cool technology’ to be further developed and standardised in the next few years.

The researchers are also building a reactor that can relithiate aged cathode back to 95% of their original capacities.

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