Alan Colledge DGSA, Technical Director at Lithium Battery Recycling Solutions, discusses the cost of the lithium battery and the effect it will have on the vehicle recycling industry as we begin to see more entering our yards in the not-so-distant future.
Like most things, if you do not have a certain capability, you either have to pay someone else to do it or learn yourself and be rewarded with cost savings. This would be the case if you were, for example, a plasterer, electrician or solicitor, but what happens when a whole country lacks capability? That is what the UK has faced for a long time when dealing with the Metallurgical treatment of battery waste and now, especially lithium batteries.
The only battery chemistry we can deal with domestically is lead-acid, where there are established lead smelters and recyclers who can take such a battery and break them down into the component parts to recover lead/plastics and neutralise the acid. It’s not surprising as the lead-acid battery is plentiful, has valuable metal inside and has been with us a long time (160 years), so you’d expect that most countries would have adapted to their use and sustainable recovery.
However, this is not the case for every other battery chemistry, alkali, nickel-cadmium, nickel-metal hydride, lithium-ion and lithium-metal. We need to ‘buy in’ the capability of recycling normally found in the greater part of Europe for the UK. These batteries require a different type of treatment which in general means the metallurgical separation of the ingredients they use – either chemically or using heat…
Pyrometallurgy (‘pyro’ – from the Greek word for ’fire’) usually involves the heat treatment of the batteries to release their metals as they combine into new ores and concentrates, which can then be refined into new raw materials.
Hydrometallurgy (‘hydro’ – from the Greek word for ’water’) involves the battery wastes being dissolved into a solution, normally an acid or other corrosive liquid, to use chemistry to separate the individual ingredients for processing into new raw materials.
Both have strengths and weaknesses and are very expensive to operate and require a lot of feedstock to be economical. It’s not too surprising that such facilities have not found their way to the UK yet as our country only generates so much and struggles most years to reach a defined target of what we should be recycling.
Also, given our 40-year historic EU membership, it’s been relatively straightforward, up to now, to trade into Europe and ship battery wastes out of the UK – it’s been easier to export than build such facilities.
This has been the case for a long time, and being well practised means that for the likes of alkali, NiCD and NIMH, which have been around a lot longer, the treatment to release the materials is better understood and commercially available. It also means the markets behind the subsequent raw materials are better established, and in some instances, this means values can be obtained, which helps in the cost of recycling.
This is fortified through governing legislation called The Battery Directive, where there is an imposition for manufacturers of batteries to take responsibility for the batteries they sell and make sure they are recycled and not simply thrown away, ending up in a landfill. Such companies need evidence of recycling,, which generates fees that need to be paid. Some of this money finds its way to the recyclers and further subsidises recycling costs. However, finding and recycling all the UK batteries is more difficult than it seems as there is a lot of reliance on householders to do the right thing and segregate battery waste and take them to collection points such as a local HWRC or a clear plastic tube container you may find in Halfords or Currys for example.
But what about lithium batteries? They must have metals and values within, so what’s their story? They can also be treated in the same fashion using pyro and hydrometallurgy, so why when pricing for the disposal of them is it normally very high when compared with the others?
Well, the answer to this is yes, they can be treated in the same way but with one distinct difference in that they can be pretty dangerous to deal with! They are also not as established, with lithium battery use being on the increase only in the last 20 years, with most of that thanks to the mobile phone market. Currently, such portable lithium batteries are a bit more straightforward to recycle, being smaller and less dangerous to handle but not without risk. We’ve had more time to integrate these with the other battery chemistries, and pound for pound, they tend to yield a higher concentration of valuable metals.
Ok, but what about large lithium batteries from electric vehicles? They are even more dangerous, have higher voltage and have a greater fire risk. They don’t have the same value yield as portable ones, but they will be massively plentiful as the cars reach their end of life in the next decade and beyond.
Why do they cost so much?
The answer to this is simple. Everything about them is currently difficult, and capabilities have to be paid for. We pay for a European Metallurgical treatment as we have none of our own. We have to pay for competent High Voltage Engineers to handle and disassemble them safely. We have to pay for specialist ADR transport with professionally trained drivers to move them domestically and abroad.
We have to pay for R&D right now to help define the best way to recycle a lithium-ion battery.
The last bit, however, is the good news. Right now, there are UK companies that understand that the current reliance on others’ capabilities has to change. The UK needs answers to take a battery, extract the materials and establish a domestic market of reuse which will be very timely considering the same Battery Directive mentions the need to use renewables when making new Lithium batteries at the upcoming gigafactories. Copper, aluminium and steel are all used in lithium batteries, and as you would expect, are easier to deal with but the blackmass from the anode and cathode foil coating, which can be over 50% of the battery, is the new substance to reckon with. Within it is the rare earth metals like cobalt, nickel, and manganese, which are valuable but costly to extract and process. That said, this is where the values start for EV batteries, and the current market can be considered embryonic at best. When demand for making new batteries in the UK pushes the requirements for raw materials that can be surface-mined from blackmass waste, there will be a sea change in costs, possibly turning into values.
So watch this space, and until then, we will have to continue paying for capability, but I hope the wait won’t be too long…