Recycling Lead-Acid Batteries Is Simple. Why Is Recycling Lithium-ion Batteries Exhausting?

The lithium-ion batteries in at the moment’s electrical automobiles outperform older lead-acid batteries by nearly each measure, besides one.  Lead-acid batteries are nonetheless the single-most recycled product on the planet.

Though lithium-ion batteries are set to energy a clean-energy transition, greater than 100 million lead-acid batteries are nonetheless bought annually in the USA, principally as starter batteries for vehicles, vans, and boats.

When these lead-acid batteries die, almost all of them get recycled. In reality, the lead-acid battery trade claims a home recycling fee of 99 %. In 2021, the U.S. produced almost a million metric tons of recycled lead. Virtually all of that recycled lead was used to fabricate new batteries.

What’s attention-grabbing is that none of that is truly new. Lead-acid batteries have been recycled for the reason that Twenties. As early as 1930, the trade described lead for batteries as a “mortgage” fairly than a type of “consumption.” Previous to the Sixties, lots of of small-scale lead recycling operations operated in and round U.S. cities, making this an early type of city mining.

These city lead recycling operations had been additionally a big supply of air pollution. One of many earliest epidemics of lead poisoning was tied to battery recycling operations in Baltimore, Maryland, within the Nineteen Thirties. In some locations, it’s nonetheless attainable to determine the websites of deserted lead-acid battery recycling operations based mostly on elevated ranges of heavy metals within the soil.

Within the Nineteen Eighties, nevertheless, the trade went by means of a serious restructuring. New environmental legal guidelines pressured recyclers to improve air pollution controls. In response, many small recyclers closed. Those who remained consolidated operations into built-in battery recycling operations with improved air pollution controls. As we speak, a dozen extremely regulated secondary lead smelters recycle the overwhelming majority of the U.S.’s spent lead-acid batteries.

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With world manufacturing of lithium-ion batteries now overtaking lead-acid batteries, it’s price asking why lead-acid batteries have been recycled for thus lengthy and so effectively, and what classes that gives for closing the loop on the lithium-ion batteries.  Think about these three factors:

First, the chemistry and format of lead-acid batteries is very standardized, which simplifies recycling. Not like with lithium-ion batteries, which are available a spread of chemistries and a wide range of shapes (cylindrical, flat, pouch, and many others.), the relative uniformity of spent lead-acid batteries reduces the necessity for sorting spent lead-acid batteries by chemistry, form, or measurement. That facilitates bulk processing.

Second, the metals content material of lead-acid batteries is sort of totally metallic lead and lead oxide paste — each of that are normally recovered by means of pyrometallurgical recycling processes at greater than 2000 levels Fahrenheit. After processing, the recovered lead is each the practical equal of and cost-competitive with lead sourced from main ore.

Compared, lithium-ion batteries are way more materially advanced. That requires tailoring lithium-ion recycling processes to recuperate a spread of cathode supplies (lithium, cobalt, nickel, manganese, iron, and many others.), anode supplies (graphite), and conductors (aluminum and copper). These complexities pose important challenges for effectively recovering supplies and processing them for re-use cost-effectively.

Third, beginning within the Nineteen Eighties, the federal authorities and states prohibited the disposal of lead-acid batteries, as a consequence of lead’s excessive toxicity. Though some spent lead-acid batteries get shipped overseas for recycling, most are recycled domestically. (Considerations have been raised about spent battery shipments to much less well-regulated services in Mexico.) That has meant recycling has performed an essential function in guaranteeing the USA has had an plentiful and dependable supply of home lead.

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Trying forward, the size of recycling of lithium-ion batteries is ready to broaden quickly. Excessive volumes of spent large-format electrical automotive batteries promise to drive the economies of scale wanted to shut the loop on lithium-ion batteries. Research point out that recycling has the potential to scale back the cumulative demand for lithium, cobalt, and nickel wanted to impress the transportation sector by as much as 30 % between 2020 and 2050.

Scaling up lithium-ion battery recycling may also create alternatives to enhance the sustainability of recycling operations. Current pyrometallurgical processes for lithium-ion batteries typically recuperate solely a fraction of the metals content material of spent batteries (normally pushed by the worth of cobalt). Direct recycling methods, resembling these being researched at Argonne Nationwide Laboratory’s ReCell Middle, have the potential to considerably enhance supplies restoration and to scale back the power inputs and potential pollution from lithium-ion battery recycling.

Though there are rising private-sector and governmental initiatives to advertise recycling in the USA, the movement of spent lithium-ion batteries, and the assets they include, may simply be diverted abroad. In the long run, a strong U.S. lithium-ion recycling trade can play an essential function in securing home sources of superior battery supplies. Though its significance is little appreciated, that’s simply the function the lead recycling trade has performed in supporting home manufacture of lead-acid batteries for the reason that mid-twentieth century.  

This submit is customized from James Morton Turner’s forthcoming ebook, Charged: A Historical past of Batteries and Classes for a Clear Vitality Future (August 2022). You possibly can study extra about Charged at Turner tweets at @_jay_turner

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