Increasing electric vehicle (EV) production may help reduce greenhouse gasses and global emissions, but manufacturing lithium-ion batteries for such a broad range of products may present different problems in the near future. Found in nearly all electrical devices and EVs, lithium-ion batteries have become a part of our everyday lives. However, when it’s time to dispose of these power sources, recovering and recycling precious metals from lithium-ion batteries isn’t easy.
EV development, production, and sales have spiked in recent years. Unfortunately, with that influx, researchers project that end-of-life lithium-ion EV batteries will rise to 1M tons by 2028. That staggering number only emphasizes the fact that we need to find a more efficient and effective way to recycle lithium-ion batteries.
Currently, recyclers use pyrometallurgical and hydro-metallurgical processes to recover materials in cobalt-rich batteries. Unfortunately, these procedures don’t work well with iron phosphate and manganese oxide-based lithium-ion units. For those batteries, a direct recycling method is used wherein the recyclers separate and rejuvenate the active metals for reuse.
To find the most effective means of separating the battery’s materials, researchers turned to a froth flotation process. Initially used in mining operations, froth flotation selectively separates hydrophobic and hydrophilic materials. Using this method, researchers were able to separate pristine lithium nickel–manganese–cobalt oxide (NMC111) and lithium manganese oxide (LMO) materials at 95 percent rate.
Of course, once recyclers separate the metals they have to rejuvenate and upcycle the material for lithium-ion battery use. On the other hand, the preservation of metals currently in use is the most important factor for sustainability. As we’ve seen recently, firms are innovating new processes for harvesting lithium more responsibly and sustainably, but all resources are finite. While the new lithium-ion battery recycling method is an exciting breakthrough, it will take some time before it’s applied at a scale that will make a true impact on the industry.