Lifton on Recycling Lithium Ion Battery Systems
The recycling of lithium ion batteries (LiBs) cannot today be profitable solely from recovering the lithium used in their construction for the purpose of re-refining it and offering it for sale into the lithium battery construction materials market. But LiB recycling can be made profitable at the present time through the extraction of an optimum amount of the total recoverable specialization value in a LiB system. Most analysts however use just the one profit-point, lithium recovery, or lack of it, as a metric and say that lithium ion battery recycling CANNOT be profitable. This is simply an incorrect conclusion based on not just a lack of particular knowledge but rather on a lack of understanding of manufacturing processes in general and of the lithium ion battery manufacturing process in particular.
A LiB is a manufactured system intended to store electrical energy received from an outside source and then to supply that energy at any time demanded and in a manner matched to the needs of the device being energized. I am speaking only of rechargeable LiB systems in this article. As such the total system requires electronic sub-systems to internally distribute and store the inbound raw material (electricity) and an electronic sub-system to manage the outflow of the stored energy to the devices requiring it upon demand. A LiB system must further be contained in a thermally controlled environment and protected from corrosion by air and water and impact damage. The electrolyte, the liquid in a battery that intermediates and facilitates the storage and release of charge, must be maintained free of contamination, and its integrity must be contained and protected at the same time as all of the other battery functions are occurring. As an integarl part of the LiB system its thermal management is included in the overall system thermal management.
Before the LiB system is (mass) produced its manufacturing, distribution, storage, and disposal must also be certified to meet strict and expensive safety and health standards of use and operation and bear the ongoing expense of the management of the life of its toxic components.
Most of the above costs of the chemical, electronic, and mechanical components of the system as well as the regulatory costs associated with the safe management of toxic materials can be recovered for re-use in a modern comprehensive recycling system.
When the total of these recovered costs is less than the costs of manufacturing new LiBs from all new materials then that difference is the profit to be gained by recycling.
At the very beginning of the analysis of the value of recycling LiB systems attention must be given to the (distributed) costs of meeting the regulations for the safe handling and disposal of toxic materials. An overall closed toxic materials loop (i.e. The recycling of toxic materials for re-use) eliminates the costs of disposal of the toxic materials as well as the costs of maintaining disposal operations indefinitely.
Get our daily investorintel update
Physically the recycling of LiB systems begins with the collection of manufacturing scrap from and of end-of-life LiB batteries. These supply chains are well established and are guided by “cradle to grave” health and safety regulations, so that when a battery containing device is disassembled the LiB is purposefully removed and set aside.
The LiBs are thus martialed by the existing scrap metal industry in the USA and the price for the “scrap” will be set by the scrap dealers depending on supply, demand, and their costs of labor, tool life, and storage.
The LiB Recycler will need to safely open the LiB batteries, segregate their components, and recover the potentially valuable components for re-use.
These may include:
- The outer case;
- The inner structural materials;
- The cathodes constructed of lithium, copper, and cobalt;
- The anodes constructed of metals and engineered graphite (spherical);
- The electrolyte composed of specialized liquid mixtures;
- The electronic management system for charging and discharging; and
- The thermal management system including its structures, valves, sensors, electronic switching components, and any specialized liquid coolants
The best situation for a LiB recycler would be a uniform flow of LiB types, such as those used by a single car maker, which would benefit both parties in that the car maker’s battery supplier or its cell maker would be optimally placed to reuse the recovered components and re-processed chemicals. In the event that more than one end user adopts the same LiB type such as those to be produced in Tesla/Panasonic’s Gigafactory then the recycler’s job will be easier to accomplish.
I note that in the real world where operations such as I am describing already exist considerable expense has been gone to in order to safely remove and store the electrolyte and to safely disassemble the potentially reactive cathodes. But any recycling venture will face the same start up costs and cradle to grave management requires that safety procedures err on the side of complexity, so these costs will have to be borne by any and all entrants into this specialized field.
A scrap dealer that wishes to become a LiB recycler will have to employ chemical engineers as well as mechanical and systems engineers.
Please stop thinking only about the value of the lithium in a LiB. You are missing the point.
Jack Lifton is the Sr. Editor for InvestorIntel Corp. and is the CEO for Jack Lifton, LLC. He is also a consultant, author, and lecturer ... <Read more about Jack Lifton>