Recycling rates of lithium-ion batteries are higher than some people think, about 50% versus reports of rates as low as 5%, according to Hans Melin, founder of Circular Energy Storage Research and Consulting. Still, not all materials in the batteries, including lithium, are reprocessed and end up in new products. S&P Global Market Intelligence recently caught up with Melin to talk about the complex life cycle of a lithium-ion battery. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
S&P Global Market Intelligence: When we are talking about lithium-ion batteries, what proportion of them get recycled?
Hans Melin: I would say most of them are getting recycled. First of all, one of the numbers that is quite important to keep in mind today is that about 80% of lithium-ion batteries that reach end of life come from portable electronics.
Phones and these sorts of things.
Exactly. Most batteries in electric vehicles haven’t reached end of life yet.
The perception that lithium-ion batteries are not recycled is basically a combination of things, ignorance and lack of understanding of the market. If you look at North America, batteries are really going to Asia, because they pay much higher prices than the processors in Canada and the U.S. Europe is a little bit different, but at least the final product will often be produced in Asia.
Can you break lithium-ion battery recycling down to a percentage that ends up in the hands of recyclers?
It’s really hard to get the exact number. We’ve been using a model when we have to and real data where we can. We know basically what takes place in the market. When batteries reach end of life, there are basically four different ways they can go. They can be stored. They can be exported, which is one step to be recycled or something else. They can be thrown in the trash. And then you can reuse the batteries.
If you look at all those avenues, what we say is about 50% of the batteries that reached end of life last year were recycled. But many of them are reused. For example, batteries from laptops or modems are going to China to become power banks and other kinds of packs. The batteries that are reaching recycling, they are legacy material, older than the end-of-life material.
In recycling lithium-ion batteries, give me a sense of the process. How much material in them, like lithium, may be recovered?
The technologies to recycle batteries and to separate the materials, that technology is there. It’s not the problem. That doesn’t mean recyclers are always doing that. It’s a matter of material prices and where demand is for the product. Lithium has always been a kind of material that, although many companies can recycle it, they can choose not to because the price isn’t right. Or when they don’t have the customers, they might choose to basically pour it down the drain.
They might take just the cobalt, the more valuable materials out, and dispose of others.
Exactly. Traditionally the market has been cobalt driven. But I would say the focus is not as much on cobalt as it used to be [with volatile cobalt prices and changing battery chemistry.] Recyclers want production scrap first because it’s clean, it’s new and it relates much more to the end product that you want to make. Next is really good streams of high-cobalt content waste batteries and then you have all kinds of other waste batteries you can process.
Assuming recyclers recover lithium and not just cobalt, are they producing something that will go back into a battery or are they producing lithium products that might go into lower-quality uses?
That’s a good question. Most of the recyclers, they would say that it’s battery grade. There are lithium experts that are very skeptical about that. And I say, I am not a chemist. I don’t know. But if you look at it from the value chain perspective, most of these recyclers do sell to battery producers. One of the biggest recyclers in South Korea is making lithium phosphate from their recycled batteries and turning that into lithium carbonate.
With growing adoption of electric vehicles and higher battery volumes, where do you see reuse and recycling rates going?
It will be high. A lot of the batteries will be reused as electric vehicle batteries, and they will be stored until they will be needed. That means they will take a long time until they go to recycling. If they’re not good enough to become electric vehicle batteries, they might be used for energy storage and backup power.