Developing a cost-effective and environmentally sound recycling process for lithium-ion batteries requires a suite of complex techniques rooted in fundamental chemistry and materials science.

It requires advances in separation techniques, a deep understanding of evolving battery chemistries and geometries, and the development of novel electrochemical techniques for relithiation.

It is a difficult challenge.

Unlike lead-acid batteries, which contain only three materials that require a few simple operations, lithium-ion batteries have several materials with complex designs. The methods to separate them are either expensive, energy intensive, or simply don’t exist. The chemistries and morphologies of these compound materials are complex and customized by individual manufactures, making a standard recycling method nearly impossible. What material is recovered, often is not recovered completely or has impurities that reduce its performance.

In addition, the process of recovery often costs more than the material is worth. Battery owners must pay recycling operators to cover the cost of recycling batteries with low-cobalt content. This problem will only increase as cobalt-rich battery systems are phased out, leaving one less recycled component for sale.

Developing an efficient recycling process that recovers material in high-value form for sale back to manufacturers is key to encouraging lithium-ion battery recycling.

To do that, the Advanced Battery Recycling R&D Facility team has focused on solving four of the largest R&D challenges to wide spread adoption:

Lithium-ion Recycling Practices

A goal of the ReCell Center is to drive towards closed-loop recycling where materials from spent batteries are directly recycled, minimizing energy use and waste by eliminating mining and processing steps.

Direct Cathode Recycling

Current lithium-ion recycling methods, such as hydrometallurgical and pyrometallurgical processes, only enable the recovery of specific metals, and in a form that is of low-value to battery manufactures. To make lithium-ion recycling profitable, without the charging of large service fees, and to encourage its growth as an industry, methods of direct recycling need to be developed.

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Materials Designed for Recycling

Designing new batteries with end-of-life in mind can improve recyclability. But to keep the batteries marketable, the center collaborators must develop new designs that trade minimal loss in energy-density performance for the ability to use cheaper, new recycling processes at end of life.

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Recovery of Other Materials

A low-energy and low-cost separation system that selectively recovers electrode materials, such as graphite, has not yet been established. The ReCell Center collaborators will develop new methods to recover graphite found in battery anodes and the fluorine found in electrolyte salts.

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Modeling and Analysis

To determine the best materials and chemistries for current and future batteries requires detailed testing. The center collaborators will analyze materials under various conditions to understand the process effects of various recycling processes and cell design formats, including material damage and impurity levels.

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