The demand for electric vehicles (EVs) and energy storage systems (ESS) in the United States has surged, creating a need for key battery elements like cobalt, nickel, and lithium. However, domestic supplies of these minerals are limited, making it crucial to explore alternative sources such as recycling. A recent MDPI study, by Dr Linda Gaines, and her co authors, Jingyi Zhang, Xin He, Jessey Bouchard and Hans Eric Melin, titled ‘Tracking Flows of End-of-Life Battery Materials and Manufacturing Scrap’ aims to address the challenges of battery recycling and explore its potential in mitigating material shortages. The study highlights the importance of battery recycling and the need for precise definitions and understanding of material flows in recycling processes.
The study compares estimated reserves to the quantities required for EV manufacturing with lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) and reveals that there is insufficient supply of nickel and cobalt to sustain even one year’s domestic auto production. Moreover, there are competing uses for these materials, making the situation more challenging. Although the United States has promising lithium reserves, underinvestment in mining and conversion means that it will take considerable time to fully leverage these resources. Therefore, recycling battery materials becomes crucial as an additional source to reduce reliance on new materials.
A lack of consensus on the definition of battery recycling rates and related concepts has hindered progress in recycling studies. The study aims to address this gap by considering the recovery potential of critical materials from all LIB applications in the United States. Additionally, the research verifies the recycling capacity in North America through announcements and direct communication with companies. Another unique aspect of this study is the differentiation between materials obtained from end-of-life (EOL) sources and production scrap. It emphasises that while scrap plays a role in developing a recycling industry, it does not contribute to the material supply since increased scrap would also lead to increased raw material demand.
According to the study, determining accurate battery recycling rates is challenging due to limited data and the complexity of products. However, several metrics can help evaluate battery recycling effectiveness. The recycling rate can be defined as the mass of recycled material divided by the mass of used material generated in a specific year, expressed as a percentage. Estimating the quantity of recycled material is difficult due to undisclosed processing quantities and inadequate documentation of international shipments. Estimates based on installed capacity data indicate that the U.S. battery recycling rate in 2019 was approximately 54%, including domestic and international processing. However, this may underestimate the actual rate as a significant volume of batteries is exported for reuse before reaching end-of-life. The global recycling rate in 2019 was around 59%, considering imported materials recycled after reuse.
Another approach is examining batteries retained domestically until end-of-life, which would yield a higher recycling rate. Element-specific recycling rates and process efficiencies are important factors, as not all components or elements are equally valuable or recyclable. Different recycling processes for lithium-ion batteries have varying efficiencies, with smelting recovering only 36% of input mass, while leaching and direct recycling offer higher rates.
The growing demand for EVs and ESS in the United States has led to a need for key battery elements that face limited domestic supply. Recycling battery materials emerges as an important solution, but a lack of consensus on recycling rates and related concepts needs to be addressed.
In the study, it states that although “the recycling of LIBs is both important and necessary as it aids in mitigating supply issues… considering the rapid growth in battery demand to fulfill the immediate requirements of transport decarbonization, we still need to find additional ways to supply and use materials more efficiently.”