Battery recycling could play a vital role in the clean energy transition. According to figures released by Precedence Research in August, the global lithium-ion battery recycling market was worth US$4.9 billion in 2021, and is expected to reach US$40.6 billion by 2030.
However, researchers at Princeton University estimate that only about 5% of used lithium-ion batteries are currently recycled in the US.
“More than 90% of consumer electronic devices that have batteries in them, whether they’re nickel-metal hydride or a newer technology like lithium-ion, don’t make it to a recycling facility,” said David Klanecky, president and CEO of Cirba Solutions. “They go into a landfill, unfortunately. There’s a significant chunk of the consumer space where we can do a better job, and we’re working on that.
“However, by sourcing from existing feedstock (a.k.a. our homes), we can remove the initial mining CO2 emissions and save up to 7.5t of CO2 per tonne of nickel, as an example, when batteries are recycled.”
In October 2021, US-based Retriev Technologies combined with Heritage Battery Recycling. The following March, the company acquired Battery Solutions, a leader in sustainable, end-to-end management solutions for end-of-life batteries to create the largest lithium-ion battery recycler in North America and, in June 2022, the combined company became Cirba Solutions.
Cirba Solutions currently has six processing locations in North America, including two lithium-ion operations, and aims to open seven new processing facilities in North America by 2026.
“We have processed over 27,000t of electric vehicle batteries, and we’re planning over the next four years to increase our recycled battery grade salts production by 600%” said Klanecky. “That’s six times what we’re doing today. Our target by 2026 is to have 13 locations.”
Preparing for the EV battery flood
The electric vehicle (EVs) market is particularly important for Cirba Solutions and for other recyclers globally. IHS Markit estimated that approximately 500,000 tons (57 GWh) of batteries reached their end-of-life in 2020, and this figure is expected to increase seven-fold by 2030.
“There are a lot of EVs out there, hybrid vehicles especially, with lithium-ion batteries that are coming off the road today,” explained Klanecky. “The Chevy Volt was launched in 2010. The Toyota Prius was launched in the early 2000s. Some of that supply is coming into our end-of-life battery projections, and it will continue to grow as more models come off the road.”
In North America, there is currently no regulation that requires EV manufacturers to collect batteries at their end-of-life and bring them back into the supply chain via a partner. This contrasts with Europe; in 2006, the European Parliament implemented a Battery Directive that regulates the manufacture and disposal of batteries in the European Union. As of 2022, it’s working on an update to this directive with new rules that apply to all types of batteries used in EVs.
“Increased regulation has been talked about in North America,” said Klanecky. “Is there a possibility that could happen in North America? Potentially. I think it’s a little bit further down the road, because there is a fairly strong infrastructure around auto recyclers, and dealerships are mostly independent in North America.”
This is where battery management service providers like Cirba Solutions come in to collect, transport and process manufacturing scrap and end-of-life batteries to extract critical minerals and bring them back into the supply chain.
Integrating mining, metals and recycling
Klanecky stressed that an integrated approach to mining and recycling is needed to ensure an adequate future supply of critical minerals.
“The goal is to make sure that we’ve got the minerals – critical elements such as lithium, nickel, cobalt and manganese – required to keep up with lithium-ion battery demand,” he said. “An important part of that is building resilient material supply chains. Security of supply is the overarching narrative for every OEM or cell manufacturer today, in addition to cost.”
To circumvent geopolitical issues, many countries are trying to regionalise and localise the domestic supply of battery minerals as much as possible. Over 800 gigawatts of battery production capacity has recently been announced in North America alone and Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicted that annual demand for lithium-ion batteries will surpass 2.7 terawatt-hours (TWh) by 2030.
Klanecky thinks that collaborations are key to maximising recycling’s contribution to battery supply chains. “We collaborate very closely with our customers,” he commented. “It’s important for us to understand what their needs are and what they’re doing, but also to look at their forecasts to understand the supply and demand dynamics.
“For instance, what are they looking for in a partner? Do they want materials back, or other types of services that we provide, like collection or diagnostic testing?”
At the beginning of November, Cirba Solutions extended a prior agreement with General Motors (GM) to recycle EV lithium-ion battery and cell scrap generated by manufacturing and research at select GM facilities through 2024. This extended contract builds upon a previous lithium-ion battery agreement from 2021.
The need for standardisation
Cirba Solutions is also pushing for its partners to make battery packs more straightforward to recycle. “How do we make sure that when they design a new EV or a battery pack, that there’s an inherent recyclability factor that’s put into that design?” said Klanecky.
“Because, if we can recycle battery packs faster and more efficiently, then it’s going to benefit everyone – not only us, but it’ll also be better for the OEM in terms of the cost profile. If we forward integrate recycling into design criteria and thinking, then it makes everyone’s job easier.”
This is also important in terms of preserving material quality (and value); if the quality of material is low due to the manufacturing process, then it isn’t worth as much to recycle.
Standardisation of pack design also needs to be taken into consideration. “We’ve got about 200 different work instructions on how to take different battery packs apart, because not a single battery pack is standardised today,” noted Klanecky. “Every OEM has a different battery pack and going forward the cell formats will continue to change.
“We need to understand the chemistries that are involved in different cell formats, so we know the types and quantities of metal that we have to recycle. That means that collaboration is absolutely critical.”
In the future, mining companies may even be able to optimise metal quality to improve their recyclability. “In theory, once a material like lithium, nickel or cobalt has been refined once, it should be easier to continue to refine it to a battery quality going forward,” said Klanecky. “That’s easier said than done though, as there’s still a lot of technology and capability required to do that.”
Partnering for a closed-loop future
As for the future of battery recycling and its interface with the mining and metals industry, Klanecky thinks there is an integration opportunity. “Mining companies feed material into the battery supply chain, and recyclers keep it in circulation – there’s a close relationship,” he said.
“New materials will continue to be needed; there’s not enough recycling capacity in the world today, nor are there are enough batteries awaiting recycling to meet demand. But, there are projections that by 2050 we may start to see more of a closed-loop system developing where fewer raw materials are required.
“There will be more recycled content, but primary demand is going up exponentially as well, so the two industries really go hand-in-hand and it’s in everyone’s best interests to support that cooperation.”