Battery recycling technology: The race to a circular economy


Electric vehicle battery recycling

Creating a circular economy for batteries requires an evolution in battery recycling technology, writes patent attorneys at European intellectual property firm Withers & Rogers Dr Nicholas Watermeyer and Dr Joanna Thurston, who also leads the firm’s batteries tech group. 

Surging demand for electric vehicle (EV) batteries has emphasised the need for large-scale operations to recycle them. This focus on recycling could bring multiple benefits for producers by minimising waste, improving process efficiency and reducing reliance on virgin materials. But will the UK’s battery recycling capacity be ready to meet demand as EV sales soar?

Over the next seven years, it’s estimated that 11 million tonnes of used lithium-ion batteries will need to be recycled globally to provide sufficient materials to supply the burgeoning need for new materials. Many industry experts say the UK lacks sufficient capacity to recycle end-of-life EV batteries and urgent action is needed to address this problem.

As today’s EV batteries have a life expectancy of 10-15 years, the projected rapid expansion of the UK’s EV car park means domestic recycling capacity could soon be overwhelmed. We are about 10 years away from a huge upturn in batteries reaching the end of their life. At this point, battery recycling facilities will need to be up and running, or the industry could lose the precious raw materials that they contain.

Battery recycling
Will the UK be able to meet the demand for EV battery recycling?

Earlier this year, the Environment Agency granted Technology Minerals a permit to open the “UK’s first” industrial-scale lithium-ion batteries recycling facility. This is a clear indication that the Government is keen to onboard additional EV battery recycling capacity.

Based in Wolverhampton in the West Midlands, the new facility which is owned and run by Recyclus Group, will be capable of recycling up to 8,300 tonnes of lithium-ion batteries in its first year of operation, rising to 41,500 tonnes a year by 2027.

Europe’s battery recycling capacity is set for expansion too. In April this year, Glencore announced plans to build the region’s biggest battery recycling plant in Italy by 2027. Large-scale initiatives of this type are being supported by innovative companies such as Lithium Battery Recycling Solutions and RS Bruce Ltd, which are actively developing the processes needed to safely and effectively extract materials from end-of-life lithium-ion batteries.

For innovators, these public-private investments signal an opportunity to develop new recycling technologies enroute to a circular economy for EV batteries. However, for recycling to be widely adopted and integrated into the batteries’ supply chain ecosystem, it has to be commercially viable.

In the short term, subsidies may be required to encourage recycling over the use of mined materials. However, in the long term, recycling is expected to become a substantial market in its own right with global revenues estimated to be US$ 19 billion by 2030.

electric car battery
Electric car batteries.

A key aspect of making lithium-ion battery recycling more viable is to start at the beginning and redesign the batteries themselves so that they are more simply constructed. This could make it easier to separate the component materials when the time comes and reduce the need for difficult-to-recycle materials. The challenges associated with recycling lithium-ion batteries mean that only about 5% of spent batteries are recycled currently.

Historically, it has been cheaper to mine the required raw materials than to retrieve them from recycling. However, technological advancements mean that recyclers can now recover almost all of the cobalt and nickel and about 80% of the lithium from spent batteries. It is even becoming possible to recover these materials at a similar cost to mining and extracting them from ore.

The first step of battery recycling typically involves shredding the cathode and anode materials into a powdery mixture known as “black mass”. The black mass is then processed to extract its valuable components. One of the processes most commonly used for this purpose is pyrometallurgy, which involves smelting the black mass at a high temperature to recover metals such as copper, nickel and cobalt.

However, due to the high operating temperatures, it is a relatively expensive process. Another commonly used extraction process, hydrometallurgy, involves chemical leaching and is completed in three steps: firstly, pre-treatment, followed by solvation in acids and solvents, and finally extraction or crystallisation of the metals.

Dr Nicholas Watermeyer and Dr Joanna Thurston believe lithium-ion batteries need to be redesigned.

A downside of this process is that it tends to generate toxic waste streams that have to be remediated or disposed of. An alternative method known as “direct recycling” has also been developed. This involves the separation and reconditioning of cathode or anode active materials for reuse in remanufactured lithium-ion batteries.

A key drawback of current battery recycling technologies is that they tend to be energy-intensive, so they have a significant carbon footprint. One result of this is that innovators have been focused on preparing the batteries for reuse, rather than recycling.

For instance, it isn’t uncommon for end-of-life EV batteries which are generally still at 80% charge capacity to be converted for domestic and industrial energy storage, to be integrated into smart grids, or used as backups for telecommunications bases or data centres. However, there are potential safety issues around end-of-life reuse that make the development of efficient recycling technologies that consume less energy highly desirable.

A mapping study conducted by Withers & Rogers shows that published patent applications related to the recycling of secondary batteries have increased significantly over the last 10 years. About 530 patent families were published in 2022, which is a 37% increase from the previous year and four times more than five years earlier. The majority of these recycling patent families refer directly to one or more of the metals commonly used in EV batteries, such as lithium, cobalt, nickel and manganese.

Lithium battery
A lithium car battery.

An example of tech innovation in this area is a recycling technology with European patent protection (EP3529388), filed by Umicore, which offers an improved process for the recovery of cobalt from cobalt-bearing lithium-ion batteries.

The process involves charging the cobalt-bearing battery material into a furnace under oxidising conditions to form a molten metal phase and a cobalt-bearing slag. The key aspect of this process is that the cobalt is concentrated in and collected from the slag rather than the metallic phase, which results in better control of the cobalt recovery process.

The largest patent filers in this field of innovation include the Japanese mining companies, Sumitomo Metal Mining Co. and JX Nippon Mining and Metals Corp, and the Chinese company Brunp (a division of CATL). Together these companies account for 531 published patent families in the last three years, almost 50% of all patent publications in this space.

Based on current patent filing trends in the field of battery recycling, we can see that more innovators are entering the space all the time and it is vital for companies to secure patent protection before market entry or risk competitors eroding their market share. There are still considerable opportunities for new entrants in this fast-developing market.

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