Can lithium car batteries be recycled and reused?

While lithium batteries for cars are recyclable, it's an expensive and energy-intensive process. A major drawback is the modular composition of the battery cells within a battery pack. The cells are soldered and glued together so tightly that their disintegration requires a lot of human or mechanical energy and emits greenhouse gases along the way. Currently, the only battery material for electric vehicles worth recycling is cobalt.

This leaves lithium, manganese and nickel, among other materials that may not be economically recyclable or require additional processing that increases costs. Not only is this bad for the environment, since there is a ton of leftover material left over, but it's also bad for recyclers, since, unless there's a buyer queuing up to buy lithium and manganese, they could be unlucky. The other problem is, of course, how to dispose of lithium batteries for cars once they have reached the end of their useful life, a problem compounded by the types of materials used during manufacturing. However, there are numerous obstacles to effectively recycling lithium batteries for cars, some of which we explore here.

However, this doesn't change the fact that the battery is still in one piece and will eventually have to be recycled or discarded. Estimates estimate that the transport costs of electric vehicle batteries represent up to 40% of the total costs of recycling. Today's batteries for electric vehicles aren't really designed to be recycled, says Thompson, a researcher at the Faraday Institution, a research center focused on battery problems in the United Kingdom. This rapid growth and the abandonment of dependence on fossil fuels are generally considered positive; however, this is not the end of the story, and social and environmental concerns are now coming to light about how to dispose of the lithium batteries that electric vehicles usually work with.

According to the researchers, better recycling methods would not only prevent pollution, but would also help governments boost their economic and national security by increasing the supply of key metals for batteries that are controlled by one or a few countries. Batteries differ greatly in terms of chemistry and construction, making it difficult to create efficient recycling systems. Driven by the rapid adoption of battery-electric vehicles, lithium-ion batteries are increasingly being reused in stationary energy storage systems and, eventually, recycled to recover all valuable components. Like a mobile phone, electric vehicles have lithium-ion batteries that can store energy and recharge once it's used up.

An example: while the waste value of lead is even lower than that of lithium, there is a viable recycling industry for traditional car batteries due to the enormous scale of use, and since current batteries for electric vehicles will survive longer than the cars in which they are housed, they are likely to be used in other applications. Nowadays, lithium batteries in cars can be recycled, and this is the best way to minimize the extraction of new raw materials; however, they are not as easily recycled as the more conventional lead-acid batteries commonly found in cars. Since the costs of recycling electric vehicle batteries are so high, it's not always economically reasonable for a junkyard or recycling company to do so. As an example, he points to the Blade Battery, a lithium ferrophosphate battery launched last year by BYD, a Chinese manufacturer of electric vehicles.

One is simply the cost of transporting batteries to plants for recycling, and another is that recycling plants can receive cathodes with very different configurations, some of which may be too difficult to separate. Materials scientist Dana Thompson develops solvents to extract valuable metals from spent car batteries.