The state of lithium-ion battery recycling has a lot of people worried. Are these concerns justified?
No, these concerns are not justified. We have published a great deal on the subject, as have the Oeko Institute and others. Still, we are constantly stumbling across articles in the media to the effect that recycling lithium-ion batteries is an unsolved problem, and that we’re on a collision course with a huge hazardous waste debacle, and so forth. These reports can even be found in magazines and newspapers which I think do good research. To put it crudely, it’s all nonsense.
What is the current situation with lithium and cobalt recycling?
Recycling works and has already been implemented in practice. There are two basic steps. The first step is to break down the battery packs manually into their component parts: the housing, the electrical and electronic components, and the actual battery modules. Umicore does this at its location in Hanau, Germany.
After that, the materials are recycled. The housing materials and the electronic components are sent to the traditional recycling processes used for those parts. There are different approaches to recycling the battery modules themselves. At Umicore, we have made a conscious choice for a process that doesn’t require us to open the battery cells or modules, but rather processes the cells or modules, up to about the size of a shoebox, in a blast-furnace process.
So that means they’re incinerated?
It’s not incineration; it is smelting in a blast-furnace process. This creates two phases. One is a metal alloy containing cobalt, nickel and copper. The other is a slag phase. The slag contains the lithium. These two phases are then further processed so that we can recover the pure metals at the end. Because we melt everything down, we are very flexible and can accept batteries with very different chemical compositions. Also, this metallurgical process is very safe and environmentally efficient. By melting down the unopened cells, nobody comes into contact with the electrolyte and the emissions resulting from the process undergo a highly effective flue gas scrubbing process.
So recycling works just as well, regardless of the chemistry of the lithium-ion battery?
With our process, yes. And by the way, there’s another misunderstanding: Sometimes people say that the blast furnace process is extremely energy-intensive and that it has a correspondingly unfavorable CO2 balance. Not even that is true, because most of the energy needed for the blast furnace process is supplied by the components of the batteries themselves. These are the organic components such as the electrolyte and graphite, as well as the residual charge left in the batteries. The metallurgical process is carried out in our large integrated metal smelter in Hoboken, near Antwerp in Belgium. This is the same location where we process electronic scrap, catalytic converters and a wide range of precious-metal-containing materials on a very large scale, with a capacity of up to 500,000 metric tons per year. Within this infrastructure, we established the special process for recycling lithium-ion batteries back in 2011.
What percentage of the lithium and cobalt in waste batteries can you keep in circulation using your process?
We recover more than 95% of the cobalt, nickel and copper contained in the batteries we receive. And that’s battery-grade material. This means that Umicore can produce new battery materials from the recovered metals. In addition to its recycling activities, Umicore is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of cathode material for lithium-ion batteries.
And the lithium?
In the past, lithium could not be recovered economically. We have changed this over the last few years by optimizing our processes. Now we’re able to concentrate the lithium left in the slag. This slag is like an artificial lithium mineral. Today, 50% of the world’s lithium mine production already comes from hard rock minerals. Spodumene is the best known; the rest is from brines, from special salt lakes, particularly in South America. Our artificial lithium mineral is comparable to the spodumene. Partners who process the lithium hard rock minerals can also produce lithium carbonate from concentrates contained in our slag. The yields from this are not yet as high as for cobalt, nickel and copper, but today we are well above 50%. We do not know yet exactly which yields we will arrive at in the end, but we are confident that we will also reach a very considerable level of lithium extraction, although it is still too early to nail down a precise percentage.
You say the yield is already over 50%. At today’s prices, is this economic? Or does it cost money to recycle lithium in this way?
You have to consider battery recycling as a unit. If we already have the battery in the recycling process to recover cobalt, nickel and copper, then it’s just an extra step to get to the lithium. The overall package as it stands today makes economic sense. However, the extent to which battery recycling is economical overall depends on a number of different factors.
The most important are, first, what valuable substances are contained in what concentrations in the battery? There is a big difference between nickel-manganese-cobalt batteries and iron-phosphate batteries. If you compare the price of iron with the prices for cobalt, nickel or copper, it’s low. And phosphate doesn’t look much better.
The second factor is where the current market prices of the metals are and the third is the efficiency of the recycling process used. So, how good is extraction, and how good is energy efficiency? Economies of scale are another very important point. We expect a sharp increase in the quantities of spent batteries from electric vehicles starting around the middle of the next decade. This will bring down the cost of recycling considerably.
In other words, if there are large quantities in 10 years’ time, then the recycling will be profitable, and it won’t cost anyone anything?
Yes, we believe that it will be economically feasible over the long term. But you also have to consider the alternatives. You can’t just dump the batteries in a landfill. From an economic perspective, it makes perfect sense to recycle lithium-ion batteries to a high standard. This also increases supply security for important raw materials, since the spent batteries accumulate here, while we have to import most of the primary raw materials from outside Europe. For the environmental footprint of a battery, recycling also makes a lot of sense, since the energy expenditure and the carbon footprint of batteries manufactured with a higher proportion of secondary raw materials is significantly better than when those raw materials come from mining.
Are there major cost differences in the recycling methods themselves?
The conventional wisdom is that really good recycling, meaning high-quality recycling with high yields, but also with very high standards for emissions and safety, is generally more expensive than poor recycling. This applies not only specifically to lithium-ion batteries, but to recycling processes in general. One example of this is waste electrical and electronic equipment. In the case of bad recycling, appliances are often somehow shipped off to West Africa, for instance, where they are recycled under rather poor conditions. You really have to put the word recycling in quotes here. First of all, as a result of what happens there, far fewer raw materials are usually returned to the cycle than with high-quality recycling in Germany. And then of course there is the considerable damage to the environment and to human health. In this respect, looking solely at price — what recycling costs — is the wrong approach. In the future, much more emphasis will have to be placed on the quality of recycling.
How can batteries be designed and produced in a more recycling-friendly way?
An important key concept here is ‘design for disassembly,’ as the battery must be extractable from the scrap product without great effort so that it can be used in the most suitable recycling processes. Once the battery pack has been disassembled from an electric vehicle, it has to be dismantled further as described above to get at the cell modules. Here, for example, the type of connection is crucial; currently, the various car batteries have a large number of different screw, adhesive and welded connections, which makes disassembly extremely difficult. Greater standardization would also make sense with a view to increasing the level of automation in disassembly in the future.
I’d like to come back to the yields of recycling. What are your recycling rates?
The EU Battery Directive stipulates a minimum recycling rate of 50% by weight. But this is not really the best approach because it treats all of the contents equally. Based on a battery pack, you can achieve 50% without even recovering the cobalt, nickel, copper or lithium. We don’t think this makes sense. The focus has to be on high recycling rates, especially for critical battery metals. We should already be aiming at processes that go well beyond the 90% mark for most battery metals. But this has to be justified by a reasonable cost, and above all by a reasonable energy input. That’s a key point. Recycling is not an end in itself; on the one hand, it is about increasing supply security and being environmentally better than mining.
At first glance, a recycling rate of 95% for some metals sounds good. But with a life cycle of, say, five years for grid-based storage, only 35% of the original raw materials are left after 100 years. Is a rate of 95% really enough?
You can go to the other extreme and try to achieve 99.5% or 99.9% recycling rates — that is, virtually zero loss. If, however, the energy expenditure and the cost expenditure increase exponentially for the last percentages or tenths of a percent, this does not make environmental sense, either.
What is your biggest challenge in recycling?
The biggest challenge today is not so much the technical recycling processes as capturing used batteries to the greatest extent possible and channeling them into high-quality recycling processes. After all, the best processes are useless unless the materials find their way into the system. At present, this is a major problem with portable lithium-ion batteries, such as those used in mobile phones and laptops. We estimate that today less than 10% of the world’s potential is actually being recycled to a high standard. As a result, the annual amount of cobalt lost worldwide is sufficient to equip more than three million electric cars.
What happens to the 50% of the lithium that you don’t recover in your process — is it lost for good?
Strictly speaking, it’s not lost. The slags containing the remainder are reused in building materials or aggregates. But you also have to consider that there is no real shortage of lithium. Lithium is one of the most common elements in the earth’s crust and there are deposits in many countries, including in Europe.
In the case of cobalt, on the other hand, environmental and social problems associated with cobalt mining come up again and again. Is there such a thing as ‘sustainable cobalt?’
We are one of the largest manufacturers of cathode materials in the world and have huge demand for cobalt. We obtain it from long-term supply agreements and, as early as 2004, we established an internal responsible sourcing process based on OECD guidelines. Now we’ve further developed it especially for cobalt. We actually enter the mines and check them against environmental protection and occupational safety criteria. We only source from places where we are sure that the extraction is being carried out responsibly. We currently do not deal with small mining operations because we can’t ensure their enforcement of occupational health and safety and that no child labor is being used.
Small-scale mining refers to some of the illegal mining operations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, right?
Yes. By the way, this is something else the media often gets wrong. In the [Democratic Republic of the] Congo, too, about 80% of cobalt production comes from industrial mining. Between 15% and 20% comes from small-scale mines.
Can you be certain that the cobalt from small-scale mining is not sneaking its way into your supply somehow?
Yes. That is exactly how we approach the issue. We know our supply chains very well. We visit the mines; we know the downstream processing steps, and we take care that no other concentrates are added somewhere along the way. We not only do this internally, but we have also been externally certified by PwC for two years.