As green technologies become more common, scientists are trying to ‘green’ the lithium-ion batteries that power them. One question being: can we innovate ways to reuse and recycle these complicated batteries?
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There are a lot of reasons to recycle lithium ion batteries. For starters they use a variety of raw materials like lithium, manganese, cobalt, and nickel. Every kilogram of raw material recovered from them is a kilogram that doesn’t need to be extracted from the earth. In countries like Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile, obtaining the lithium needed for the battery’s cathode uses copious amounts of water in some of the driest places on the planet. Other metals typically used in lithium-ion batteries come with the usual impacts associated with mining, but there’s a terrible dark side to one metal in particular: cobalt. By some estimates more than 70% of the world’s cobalt comes from one place: the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Anybody there can just dig it up and sell it, which has led to armed conflict, unsafe mining practices, and the use of child labor. Cutting back on the need for new cobalt can also reduce the human suffering mining it indirectly causes. Recycling batteries also keeps materials out of landfills, eliminating the chance that cobalt, nickel, and manganese can contaminate the soil and groundwater. But despite these upsides as of 2019, fewer than 5% of lithium ion batteries were recycled. That’s partly because lithium ion battery recycling faces the same challenge that other recycling operations face: namely being cost competitive with virgin materials. In all the ways extracting lithium and mining cobalt is costly, it’s often still cheaper than recycling in terms of dollars and cents. The issue is made even more complicated because of the nature of today’s battery industry. There’s no standard for how to make a lithium-ion cell.

Cathodes can be made up of lithium cobalt oxide, or lithium nickel manganese cobalt, or lithium nickel cobalt aluminum oxide, or lithium iron phosphate. Because recyclers can’t pick and choose which batteries come to their facilities, they often have to use one-size-fits-all solutions. Often that means burning the batteries. Smelting lithium-ion batteries recovers the most expensive metals, namely cobalt and nickel, as well as copper. However lithium, aluminum, and organic compounds get burned off, and recyclers have to deal with the toxic fluorine compounds the process creates.

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