Lithium-ion’s end of life is not the dead end you think

As the electric vehicle industry gathers momentum, concerns over battery recycling appear to be overblown.

As the electric vehicle industry gathers momentum, concerns over battery recycling appear to be overblown.

BY JASON DEIGN:

The fate of used lithium-ion batteries, seen as a weak point for the industry, is not as gloomy as many think, a report has revealed.

The study by lithium-ion life cycle management firm Circular Energy Storage said a significant proportion of the batteries could end up being used in second-life applications and recycling was more widespread than thought.

The prevailing dim view of lithium-ion recycling and second-life use simply stems from the fact that these activities aren’t as common in America or the European Union (EU) as they are in Asia, it transpires.

“Our latest report on the global market gives a very different view than that usually discussed in media,” said Hans Eric Melin, director of Circular Energy Storage in London, UK.

“Our conclusion is that second life will be a very important category in the energy storage market, especially in China but also in US and EU.” 

Second-life projects

Essentially all the batteries produced by Nissan, Renault and BMW today could be used in second-life projects as long as they are in good shape and the companies can get their hands on the them, which is not always easy, he said.

“And when it comes to recycling we conclude it is working very well from a circular point of view,” he said.

Considerably more batteries are going to recycling than is usually believed, he stated. “However, not in EU or US but in China and South Korea.”

According to the report, titled ‘The lithium-ion battery end-of-life market 2018–2025’, 179,000 tonnes of batteries will reach their end of life this year.

Portable devices, such as laptops, smartphones and power tools, will account for 83% of this volume. Only 20,000 tonnes will come from electric vehicles. Of the total volume reaching end of life, 97,000 tonnes will be recycled. 

Recycling volume

Portable device batteries will make up 90% of this recycling volume, with 67,000 tonnes being recycled in China and 18,000 tonnes in South Korea.

China, in particular, is making a play to dominate lithium-ion battery reprocessing. Circular Energy Storage estimates the country will recycle 75% of portable device batteries traded in across North America and Europe.

“Only 12,000 tonnes will be recycled in the rest of the world, which basically is what all current research is focusing on today,” said Circular Energy Storage.

The remainder is not all being thrown away, though.

Instead, said Circular Energy Storage, there is a rapidly growing reuse industry that prepares industrial and portable batteries for second-life use in applications ranging from small power banks to utility-scale energy storage. 

End-of-life market

Overall, the end-of-life market for lithium-ion batteries was expected to be worth more than USD$1.3bn this year alone.

Of this, $1.1bn will come from recovery of materials and around $230m from the repair, refurbishment and preparation for reuse of industrial batteries.

China currently holds 70% of the end-of-life market, the report said, with South Korea accounting for a further 16%.

Also, said the report: “A not insignificant amount of this value will however be distributed down to companies involved in collection, sorting, transportation and preparations for recycling and reuse in Europe, North America and Japan.”

The end-of-life market is driven by two other markets with which it is increasingly integrated, said the report.

On one hand, the battery materials market, comprising companies that refine mined and recycled compounds to prepare anodes, cathodes and electrolytes for batteries, was increasingly looking at recycling as a source of supplies. 

Cobalt from recycled material

In 2018, for example, the amount of cobalt extracted from recycled material is expected to exceed 14,000 tonnes.

On the other hand, the energy storage market is looking to used batteries as a potential source of cheap battery capacity for second-life applications.

Both markets are expected to grow rapidly, reinforcing demand for used batteries, said the report.

Consequently, by 2025 Circular Energy Storage predicts the market for lithium-ion recycling will grow to $3.5bn and that for second-life batteries could top $4.2bn.

The market won’t be limited by a lack of recycling or processing facilities, said the report, but by the supply of batteries and the price of commodities.

“Reuse of batteries is about to change not only the recycling market but might in fact change the entire battery industry and have significant effect even on the automotive and energy industries,” Circular Energy Storage claimed.

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