Lithium-Ion Batteries That Have Been Recycled May Outperform New Batteries

Nearly all electric cars, laptops, and smartphones run on lithium-ion batteries, which are also crucial for storing renewable energy in the event of a climate catastrophe. However, the amount of lithium and other essential minerals that can be extracted by all of the world’s mining activities is insufficient to supply the explosive demand for these batteries. The process of establishing new mines is costly and takes years. Protests against new mines have resulted from the numerous environmental problems that mining causes, including the depletion of neighboring water supplies and the contamination of the surrounding area with runoff debris.

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All of this indicates that changing the global energy system sustainably depends on the ability to recycle current batteries. However, the commercial recycling of lithium-ion batteries is very new. Manufacturers of batteries have been hesitant to use recycled materials because they fear the materials may not be as high-quality as those made from freshly mined minerals, which might result in a shorter battery life or internal damage. There can be severe repercussions, especially in the case of an electric car.

However, recent research that was published in Joule has discovered what experts refer to as a more sophisticated recycling technique that restores the cathode—the pricey and crucially important meticulously created crystal that is the cathode of a lithium-ion battery and provides the necessary voltage. The batteries that the researchers created using their novel cathode-recycling method outperform those that have a cathode built from scratch. Indeed, batteries with recycled cathode have a longer lifespan and charge more quickly. “Very unique and very impressive” is how Kang Xu, an electrochemist at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory who was not involved in the work, describes the team’s method and outcome.

No Longer A Joke

Co-author of the current study Yan Wang, a materials science professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, began investigating battery recycling eleven years ago. “Some people joked with me at the time, ‘There’s not enough batteries for you to recycle,'” he recalls. That joke is becoming old fast. According to Department of Energy predictions, during the next ten years, the battery industry may rise tenfold. According to Dave Howell, head of the DOE’s Vehicle Technologies Office, “recycling of lithium-ion batteries—getting that material back into the supply chain—is critical” to easing the market’s mounting difficulties. The new study was supported by the DOE as part of its enormous initiative to promote large-scale battery recycling technology in the United States.

A cluster of lithium ions travels from one crystalline “cage” (the anode) to another (the cathode) while a lithium-ion battery is producing electricity. Currently, the most popular techniques for recycling these batteries entail breaking the battery down into its component parts and shredding it completely before melting it down or dissolving it in acid. The end product is a black mass from which simple compounds or chemical components can be extracted. Its texture can range from powder to ooze. Then, the recovered products can be produced commercially using the same method as cathodes made from newly mined elements.

Wang and his colleagues employ a very similar procedure, but they preserve some of the vital composition of the previous cathode rather than disassembling the battery to its component chemical parts. Following battery shredding, the less costly components—such as the steel battery case and electrical circuits—are physically removed and recycled separately. The majority of the cathode material remains; contaminants are eliminated by dissolving it in acid. Subsequently, they meticulously include minimal amounts of newly sourced elements, such as nickel and cobalt, into the cathode to guarantee the precise proportion of components—an additional differentiation from conventional recycling techniques. A few further processes yield an efficiently renewed cathode powder consisting of minuscule crystalline particles that are suitable for affixing to a metal strip and inserting into a “new” battery.

Because a cathode is made from a precise mixture of valuable minerals to reach the voltage that the battery needs, even little modifications to its composition or structure can have a negative impact on its performance. Therefore, a significant portion of the value of the cathode powder lies “in how you’ve engineered the particles [of powder] in the first place,” according to Emma Kendrick, an energy materials professor at the University of Birmingham in England who was not involved in the current work. If the battery is just burned down or dissolved in one go, as is the case with present recycling techniques, then that value is gone.

Greater Pores, Quicker Charging

The particles in their recovered cathode powder were compared to those in commercially manufactured cathode powder (which is mostly formed from minerals that had recently been mined) by Wang and his colleagues. The recycled powder particles were discovered to be more porous, with especially big spaces in the middle of each one. Because of these properties, the cathode crystal has some wiggle space to inflate slightly when lithium ions squeeze into it, which prevents the crystal from shattering as readily as cathodes made from scratch. Battery deterioration over time is largely caused by this kind of cracking.

Wang’s recycled batteries charge more quickly than their equivalents made for sale because they have larger pores, which also equate to greater exposed surface area where the chemical processes required to charge the battery may occur. According to Wang, a goal for the future may be to design all cathodes—rather than simply those composed of recycled materials—to have this improved structure.

According to Linda Gaines, chief scientist at ReCell Center, an organization that studies and promotes battery recycling, and transportation analyst at Argonne National Laboratory, the most recent findings show that “the cathode they can make is as good as—or even better than—the commercial material that we’ve been importing.” (Gaines did not participate in the recent research.) China is the global leader in battery recycling, which accounts for a major portion of these imports. However, because of this circumstance, materials need to be moved around the world in order to be recycled, which raises the carbon footprint of recovered batteries and lessens their appeal as a more environmentally friendly option. Wang’s team’s strategy eliminates a large portion of the need for international commerce and transportation, opening the door for other nations to increase their own domestic battery recycling. Wang co-founded the recycling firm Ascend Elements, which was formerly known as Battery Resourcers, and is now expanding the process.