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By 2025 nearly a quarter of the cobalt in lithium ion batteries will be recycled, while new chemistries aim to reduce its use. Angeli Mehta reports
Recycling lithium ion batteries from electric vehicles, smartphones, laptops and many other gadgets, as well as developing new battery chemistries, will go some way towards addressing the demand for cobalt, and other vital metals. Spent batteries will be abundant: according to the World Economic Forum, 11m tonnes of them will be discarded by 2030.
From August this year, Chinese electric vehicle (EV) manufacturers will be responsible for recycling or repurposing car batteries. Although fine details are still being worked out, the measures also require battery manufacturers to ensure products are standardized so they can be easily disassembled, and that they work with electric vehicle manufacturers on a tracing system for all battery components. The first of China’s electric vehicles are likely to come to the end of their life this year.
Such is the demand for cobalt that recyclers and battery makers are converging on limited supplies
China’s largest EV manufacturer, BYD, has begun construction of a battery recycling plant in Shanghai. According to a spokesperson, the company has introduced ways to utilize batteries removed from decommissioned electric vehicles, recycling some for use in base stations, battery storage power stations and other facilities. Batteries that cannot be re-used are disassembled.
UK consultant Creation Inn estimates that by 2025, 23-24% of cobalt will be recycled, the bulk of that in China. Managing director Hans Eric Melin suggests that this won’t have a huge impact on the supply chain or pricing because of the expected growth in demand for cobalt.
China's BYD has begun re-utilizing used EV batteries. (Credit: A. Aleksandravicius/Shutterstock)
Such is the demand for cobalt, he adds, that recyclers and battery makers are converging on limited supplies. Shenzhen based GEM – China’s largest recycler, which provides cobalt to battery makers – has been trying to secure a deal to take a third of mining firm Glencore’s output for a three-year period because it can’t supply enough cobalt from recycling. Meanwhile one of its customers – battery maker CATL – has taken a majority stake in another recycler, Guangdong Brunp Recycling Technology.
Belgian battery materials and recycling company Umicore doesn’t believe cobalt supply will be a problem in the first wave of electrification but certainly will, beyond that. It has developed smelting technology to recover battery metals that it says minimizes energy consumption. Plastics and other organic compounds, including solvents and electrolytes from dismantled batteries, are burned as a gas to produce heat for the process. The gas is cleaned so there are no harmful emissions.
There is still a lack of consumer awareness that valuable materials can be recovered and re-used
Recovery rates for key metals like cobalt is 95%, and the cobalt can be reused in battery materials and other applications. Umicore’s pilot plant at Hoboken, in Belgium, can treat 7000 tons of rechargeable batteries each year, but it expects the plant to grow after 2020, when the first of Europe’s electric vehicle batteries reach the end of their lives.
Maarten Quix, Umicore’s head of battery recycling, points out that it is equally important to recover metals from batteries in smartphones and laptops, but that there is still a lack of consumer awareness that valuable materials can be recovered and re-used. Metals are infinitely recyclable without losing their properties.
Other efforts include Nissan’s partnership with power management company Eaton to repurpose its Nissan Leaf electric vehicle batteries as home storage units after their first life in cars is over.
New battery chemistries also offer solutions. In a lithium ion battery, lithium ions flow back and forth between one electrode (the anode) and the other (cathode), as the battery is charged and discharged. Advances in energy storage and safety have largely been driven by changing recipes and structure of the cathode.
Cobalt was the first material used, but costs have meant manufacturers have increasingly substituted nickel, manganese and aluminium. New chemistries are promised this year that will use 80% nickel, 10% manganese and just 10% cobalt.
Tesla says its vehicle batteries already use less cobalt than other car makers. Whether cobalt can be done away with entirely is a hot research topic: at the end of last year US researchers announced they’d developed a battery that replaced cobalt with iron, potentially delivering not only a much cheaper battery, but one with much greater capacity too.
Angeli Mehta is a former BBC current affairs producer, with a research PhD. She now writes about science, and has a particular interest in the environment and sustainability. @AngeliMehta
This article is part of the in-depth briefing Clean Energy's Human Rights Challenge: See also:
cobalt electric vehicles recycling batteries World Economic Forum China BYD GEM Umicore Nissan