Lithium-ion Battery Recycling in the Circular Economy
| Policy Research and Advocacy Team, Friends of the Earth (HK)
Circular economy has gained momentum as an effective approach to
reduce waste and conserve resources. The basic principle is to extend the
lifespan of resources as much as possible, with the ultimate goal of minimising
waste and obtaining the highest possible value from materials.This has become increasingly important in the face of climate change and
resource scarcity. In
this context, lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery recycling is an essential aspect of
a circular economy, as it allows for the recovery of valuable materials and
helps to reduce waste.
Linear and circular economy
(Image source: Circular Economy Month)
Li-ion batteries find application in a diverse range of uses, from
electronic gadgets to electric vehicles and storage systems for renewable
energy.Despite their widespread use, batteries have a finite lifespan and must be
replaced eventually. If these batteries are disposed of inappropriately, they
may end up in landfills where they will decompose and release toxic chemicals
into the environment.
Uses for Li-ion batteries
(Image source: Yuanli Ding et al.)
Environmental impact of a battery
lifecycle (Image source: ACC)
In fact, Li-ion batteries contain valuable metals and minerals, such
as lithium, cobalt, nickel, and manganese, which can be recovered through
recycling.These resources are becoming increasingly scarce, and the environmental consequences
associated with their extraction can be significant.By recycling used batteries, these materials can be conserved and reused,
reducing the need for mining and extraction.
The components of a Li-ion
battery (Image source: Argonne National Laboratory)
In addition to the environmental benefits, Li-ion battery recycling
can also create new economic opportunities and jobs.Recycling facilities require skilled workers to operate and maintain the
equipment and processes involved in battery recycling. Moreover, the recovered
materials can be sold and used in the production of new batteries, creating a
circular supply chain and contributing to the development of a more sustainable
and circular economy.
However, Li-ion battery recycling poses a significant challenge due
to the complexity of the process. Different batteries require distinct
recycling procedures, depending on their unique chemistry and type.
Furthermore, batteries can be hazardous if not handled with care, as they are
prone to explosion or releasing toxic chemicals. Recycling facilities must
strictly adhere to safety protocols to protect the workers and the environment.
Li-ion battery recycling (Image
source: The Economic Times Business Verticals)
Fortunately, advances in recycling technology have made the process
safer and more efficient. For instance, robotic sorting systems using
artificial intelligence and machine learning are now available to automatically
identify and sort batteries, thereby minimizing the risk of human error and
improving sorting accuracy.Moreover, biohydrometallurgy is an emerging technology that uses bacteria to
break down battery components, such as metals and plastics, into their
constituent parts. This process is less energy-intensive and produces fewer
emissions than traditional recycling methods.,
A robotic disassembly
system (Image source: Interesting Engineering)
Apart from recycling, there are other ways to promote a circular
economy in the battery industry. For example, battery manufacturers can design
batteries with recyclability in mind, making them easier to disassemble and
recycle. They can also establish take-back or leasing programs where customers
can return used batteries for recycling or repurposing.
Governments can also play a role in promoting a circular economy in
the Li-ion battery industry by implementing policies and regulations that
encourage battery recycling and discourage the disposal of batteries in
landfills. This can be further facilitated by providing funding and support for
research and development in battery recycling technology.
Battery recycling presents a sustainable solution to the growing
problem of battery waste, while also contributing to the circular economy. By
recovering valuable resources from used batteries, we can reduce the need for
new mining and extraction, conserve natural resources, and promote a more
responsible approach to resource management.