How the circular economy is solving the problem of spent batteries

Chairman of Technology Minerals, Robin Brundle, explores how a truly circular economy can support the sustainable solutions needed to resolve the problem of surplus batteries and help to boost a steadier supply of critical metals.

Each year in the UK alone, approximately 20,000 tonnes of batteries end up in landfill. That’s enough to power a city the size of Birmingham for an entire day.

This is bad news for the environment. Not only does it create toxic waste, but the refuse materials, if recycled, could be a solution rather than a problem.

The problem of surplus battery waste is a growing challenge.

As the world moves towards greater electrification, including the adoption of electric vehicles (EVs), the demand for batteries – and the critical minerals for their composition – is outstripping the supply.

Demand for EVs is rocketing, with more than 840,000 EVs registered in the UK as of March 2022. As net zero deadlines creep closer, fossil fuel-powered cars are phased out and EVs become cheaper, demand will surge even further.

Several of the minerals required for battery production – such as lithium, lead, cobalt, and graphite – are already in short supply. In some cases, geopolitical uncertainties put global supply chains at risk. Availability of these critical battery metals – or lack of – could jeopardise the successful transition to electrification.

According to Benchmark Minerals, an imminent supply deficit threatens to increase EV battery costs by 16% this year, with further battery deficits forecast for the mid-2020s. Lithium supply shortfall could amount to up to 225,000 tonnes in North America and 500,000 tonnes in Europe by 2030.

Achieving a truly circular economy – recirculating materials and products to help eliminate waste and pollution – supports the sustainable solutions needed to resolve the battery problem and help to boost a steadier supply of critical metals.

In fact, the circular economy forms an important part of the UK Government’s newly launched Critical Minerals Strategy, which outlines its commitment to supply critical minerals, stating: “We will maximise what the UK produces along the critical minerals value chain – through mining, refining, manufacturing, and recycling – in a way that creates jobs and growth and protects communities and our natural environment”.

It is imperative that we transition to a fully circular economy and start recycling all batteries if we are to come close to meeting demand. The problem is, hardly any lithium-ion batteries are currently being treated properly because of the technical challenges it poses for industry.

Harsh reality of not recycling

Batteries contain hazardous materials that cause irreparable damage to land, water, and wildlife. In fact, batteries are one of the most hazardous items ending up in landfills today. A battery’s thin exterior metal coating slowly decomposes, and within a century, the heavy metals inside are exposed to the environment. Lithium fluoride salts in organic solvents used in batteries’ electrolytes can also seep into the environment.

These heavy metals contaminate surrounding soil, groundwater, and waterways. Some of these elements react with rainwater to form a toxic cocktail called ‘leachate’ that pollutes drinking water and accumulates in marine life. The damage caused is permanent. These metals do not degrade.

Incinerating spent batteries is equally not a viable solution.

The process releases gases that pollute the air and leave behind poisonous ash, which eventually ends up in landfill, too.

Carelessly discarding lithium batteries also poses a serious fire risk. In normal conditions, lithium-ion batteries are perfectly stable; if punctured, even small ones can explode. The risks only increase with the size of the battery. Eunomia Research and Consulting found that lithium-ion batteries currently cause about 48% of all waste fires in the UK each year, resulting in £158 million in annual damages.

Still at an early phase in the electric vehicle transition, most EV batteries, for example, are currently in service. But as they reach end-of-life, they will pose a serious fire risk if not handled appropriately – and this includes proper handling during transportation.

Globally, over 262,000 tonnes of lithium-ion batteries reached end-of-life in 2019, and this is expected to rise to two million tonnes per year by 2030, demonstrating both the scale of the challenge and the importance of creating the infrastructure to properly and efficiently process batteries.

Low recycling uptake

Recycling is a crucial part of the UK’s industrial strategy for batteries, and a must-have capability across any industrial sector pivoting to electrification. It does not make sense to waste the critical materials we currently have by dumping perfectly recyclable batteries into landfills, polluting ecosystems, and causing dangerous fires – yet less than 5% of lithium-ion batteries are currently recycled in Europe and the US.

Historically, raw materials have been cheaper than recycled ones, while recycling batteries can be complex. Different battery types have their own mix of elements, which meant that each battery type needed its own ‘bespoke’ recycling process. Precise battery chemistries can also be difficult to identify, and their chemical compositions are constantly evolving as manufacturers make improvements, further complicating the recycling process.

However, a recent upsurge in raw material prices has made recycling considerably more attractive.

Ensuring a battery never goes to landfill again

Recycling can provide up to 22% of the metals needed to produce lithium-based batteries. Studies show that recycling could decrease the overall demand for nickel, lithium, and cobalt required to electrify the transportation sector by up to 30% by 2050.

Technological breakthroughs have made it possible for operators to recycle every chemistry of lithium batteries, providing the right conditions and capabilities to scale up the rate of lithium battery recycling. For a battery recycling model to be scalable, it will need to streamline and adapt to the range of battery compositions.

In 2021, our company, Technology Minerals, which has a 49% stake in Recyclus, became the UK’s first listed company to create a circular economy for battery metals. Working with Warwick Manufacturing Group at the University of Warwick, we have overcome the biggest obstacle: we can sort batteries into the correct categories for each chemistry and recycle each type simultaneously on-site, in any state of charge.

We partnered with Slicker Recycling to ensure a fully end-to-end nationwide logistical solution for the battery sector. Our aim is to reach a recycling capacity of 41,500 tonnes of lithium-ion and 80,000 tonnes of lead-acid batteries a year.

Recycling batteries is also a carbon-intensive endeavour.

Where recycling happens also affects the environmental footprint of recycling processes and the tightness of the supply chain. Although overseas recycling initiatives exist, domestic battery recycling operations will play an increasingly important role in the circular economy. It offers a ‘homegrown’ source of battery metals, as well as helping to decarbonise the supply chain, since the batteries would not need to be shipped away.

As recycling operations grow and scale, there is greater opportunity for innovation. For example, in the US, the Argonne National Laboratory’s ReCell Center has been researching recycling strategies at the industrial level that not only improve the recovery of raw materials but also reduce the energy inputs and possible pollutants from lithium-ion battery recycling.

By creating frameworks that tackle the challenge of dead batteries, we can create turn issues into opportunities.

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