Lithium batteries' big unanswered question (2022)

Future Planet|Energy

Lithium batteries' big unanswered question

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Lithium batteries' big unanswered question (1)

By Allison Hirschlag6th January 2022

As the world looks to electrify vehicles and store renewable power, one giant challenge looms: what will happen to all the old lithium batteries?

A

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As the quiet whirr of electric vehicles gradually replaces the revs and noxious fumes of internal combustion engines, a number of changes are set to filter through our familiar world. The overpowering smell of gas stations will fade away into odourless charge stations where cars can re-juice their batteries as needed. Meanwhile, gas-powered generator sites that dot the horizon may be retrofitted to house massive batteries that could one day power entire cities with renewable energy.

This electrified future is much closer than you might think. General Motors announced earlier this year that it plans to stop selling gas-powered vehicles by 2035. Audi's goal is to stop producing them by 2033, and many other major auto companies are following suit. In fact, according to BloombergNEF, two-thirds of the world's passenger vehicle sales will be electric by 2040. And grid-scale systems the world over are growing rapidly thanks to advancing battery storage technology.

While this may sound like the ideal path to sustainable power and road travel, there's one big problem. Currently, lithium (Li) ion batteries are those typically used in EVs and the megabatteries used to store energy from renewables, and Li batteries are hard to recycle.

One reason is that the most widely used methods of recycling more traditional batteries, like lead-acid batteries, don't work well with Li batteries. The latter are typically larger, heavier, much more complex and even dangerous if taken apart wrong.

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In your average battery recycling plant, battery parts are shredded down into a powder, and then that powder is either melted (pyrometallurgy) or dissolved in acid (hydrometallurgy). But Li batteries are made up of lots of different parts that could explode if they're not disassembled carefully. And even when Li batteries are broken down this way, the products aren't easy to reuse.

"The current method of simply shredding everything and trying to purify a complex mixture results in expensive processes with low value products," says Andrew Abbott, a physical chemist at the University of Leicester. As a result, it costs more to recycle them than to mine more lithium to make new ones. Also, since large scale, cheap ways to recycle Li batteries are lagging behind, only about 5% of Li batteries are recycled globally, meaning the majority are simply going to waste.

But as demand for EVs escalates, as it's projected to, the impetus to recycle more of them is set to barrel through the battery and motor vehicle industry.

Lithium batteries' big unanswered question (2)

Extracting and processing lithium requires huge amounts of water and energy, and has been linked to environmental problems near lithium facilities (Credit: Alamy)

The current shortcomings in Li battery recycling isn't the only reason they are an environmental strain. Mining the various metals needed for Li batteries requires vast resources. It takes 500,000 gallons (2,273,000 litres) of water to mine one tonne of lithium. In Chile's Atacama Salt Flats, lithium mining has been linked to declining vegetation, hotter daytime temperatures and increasing drought conditions in national reserve areas. So even though EVs may help reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions over their lifetime, the battery that powers them starts its life laden with a large environmental footprint.

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If the millions upon millions of Li batteries that will give out after around 10 years or so of use are recycled more efficiently, however, it will help neutralise all that energy expenditure. Several labs have been working on refining more efficient recycling methods so that, eventually, a standardised, eco-friendly way to recycle Li batteries will be ready to meet skyrocketing demand.

"We have to find ways to make it enter what we call a circular lifecycle, because the lithium and the cobalt and nickel take a lot of electricity and a lot of effort to be mined and refined and made into the batteries. We can no longer treat the batteries as disposable," says Shirley Meng, professor in energy technologies at the University of California, San Diego.

How to recycle Li batteries

A Li battery cell has a metal cathode, or positive electrode that collects electrons during the electrochemical reaction, made of lithium and some mix of elements that typically include cobalt, nickel, manganese and iron. It also has an anode, or the electrode that releases electrons to the external circuit, made of graphite, a separator and an electrolyte of some kind, which is the medium that transports the electrons between cathode and anode. The lithium ions travelling from the anode to the cathode form an electric current. The metals in the cathode are the most valuable parts of the battery, and these are what chemists focus on preserving and refurbishing when they dismantle an Li battery.

Meng says to think of an Li battery like a bookshelf with many layers, and the lithium ions rapidly move across each shelf, cycling back each time to the top shelf – a process called intercalation. After years and years, the bookshelf naturally starts to break down and collapse. So when chemists like Meng dismantle an Li battery, that's the sort of degradation they see in the structure and materials.

"We can actually find the mechanisms, [and] either using heat or some kind of chemical treatment method, we can put the bookshelf back [together]," says Meng. "So we can let those recycled and refurbished materials go back to the assembly line to the [Li battery] factories to be made into new batteries."

Lithium batteries' big unanswered question (3)

Lithium batteries are more internally complex than lead-acid batteries, composed of many carefully assembled parts (Credit: Getty Images)

Improving Li battery recycling and ultimately making their parts reusable will reinfuse value into the Li batteries already out there. This is why scientists are advocating for the direct recycling process Meng describes – because it can give the most precious parts of Li batteries, like the cathode and anode, a second life. This could significantly offset the energy, waste and costs associated with manufacturing them.

But disassembling Li batteries is currently being done predominantly by hand in lab settings, which will need to change if direct recycling is to compete with more traditional recycling methods. "In the future, there will need to be more technology in disassembly," says Abbott. "If a battery is assembled using robots, it is logical that it needs to be disassembled in the same way."

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Abbott's team at the Faraday Institution in the UK is investigating the robotic disassembly of Li batteries as part of the ReLib Project, which specialises in the recycling and reuse of Li batteries. The team has also found a way to achieve direct recycling of the anode and cathode using an ultrasonic probe, "like what the dentist uses to clean your teeth," he explains. "It focuses ultrasound on a surface which creates tiny bubbles that implode and blast the coating off the surface." This process avoids having to shred the battery parts, which can make recovering them exceedingly difficult.

According to Abbott's team's research, this ultrasonic recycling method can process 100 times more material over the same period than the more traditional hydrometallurgy method. He says it can also be done for less than half the cost of creating a new battery from virgin material.

Abbott believes the process can easily be applied to scale, and used on larger grid-based batteries, because they typically have the same battery cell structure, they just contain more cells. However, the team is currently only applying it to production scrap, from which parts are easier to separate, because they're already free of their casings. The team's robotic dismantling tests are ramping up though. "We have a demonstrator unit that currently works on whole electrodes and we hope in the next 18 months to be able to showcase an automated process working in a production facility," says Abbott.

Degradable batteries

Some scientists are advocating for a move away from Li batteries in favour of ones that can be produced and broken down in more eco-friendly ways. Jodie Lutkenhaus, a professor of chemical engineering at Texas A&M University, has been working on a battery that is made of organic substances that can degrade on command.

"Many batteries today are not recycled because of the associated energy and labour cost," says Lutkenhaus. "Batteries that degrade on command may simplify or lower the barrier to recycling. Eventually, these degradation products could be reconstituted back into a fresh new battery, closing the materials life-cycle loop."

It's a fair argument considering that, even when a Li battery is dismantled and its parts are refurbished, there will still be some parts that can't be saved and become waste. A degradable battery like the one Lutkenhaus' team is working on could be a more sustainable power source.

Organic Radical Batteries (ORBs) have been around since the 2000s, and function with the help of organic materials that are synthesised to store and release electrons. "An Organic Radical Battery has two of these [materials], both acting as electrodes, that work in concert to store and release electrons, or energy, together," explains Lutkenhaus.

The team uses an acid to break their ORBs down into amino acids and other byproducts, however, conditions need to be just right for the parts to degrade properly. "Eventually we found that acid at elevated heat worked," says Lutkenhaus.

There are a number of challenges ahead for this degradable battery though. The materials needed to create it are expensive, and it has yet to provide the amount of power required for high-demand applications like EVs and power grids. But perhaps the greatest challenge degradable batteries like Lutkenhaus's face is competing with the already well-established Li battery.

Lithium batteries' big unanswered question (4)

As demand for electric vehicles surges in the coming decades, the need for a way to recycle their batteries will grow too (Credit: Getty Images)

The next step for scientists pushing direct recycling of Li batteries forward is working with battery manufacturers and recycling plants to streamline the process from build to breakdown.

"We are really encouraging all the battery cell manufacturers to barcode all the batteries so with robotic AI techniques we can easily sort out the batteries," says Meng. "It takes the entire field to cooperate with each other in order to make that happen."

Li batteries are used to power many different devices, from laptops to cars to power grids, and the chemical makeup differs depending on the purpose, sometimes significantly. This should be reflected in the way they're recycled. Scientists say battery recycling plants must separate the various Li batteries into separate streams, similar to how different types of plastic are sorted when recycled, in order for the process to be most efficient.

And even though they face an uphill battle, more sustainable batteries are slowly but surely coming onto the scene. "We can already see designs entering the market which make assembly and disassembly easier, and it is probable that this will be an important topic in future battery development," says Abbott.

On the production side, battery and car manufacturers are working on cutting down on the materials needed to build Li batteries to help reduce energy expenditure during mining and the waste each battery creates at the end of its life.

Electric car manufacturers have also begun to reuse and repurpose their own batteries in a number of different ways. For example, Nissan is refurbishing old Leaf car batteries and putting them in automated guided vehicles that bring parts to its factories.

Speed bumps ahead

The steadily increasing market demand for EVs already has companies across the automobile industry spending billions of dollars on increasing the sustainability of Li batteries. However, China is currently the largest producer of Li batteries by far, and subsequently ahead when it comes to recycling them.

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Lithium batteries' big unanswered question (5)

So far, China produces the most lithium batteries, and it also has more capability to recycle them than other producers (Credit: Getty Images)

Widely adopting standardised methods for recycling Li batteries that include sorting streams for the different types will get them a big step closer. Meanwhile, using AI technology to refurbish the most useful parts, such as the cathode, could help countries with small supplies of Li battery components to not have to rely so much on China.

Developing new batteries that might rival the Li battery will also likely shake up the industry by creating some healthy competition. "I do think it does the world better if we diversify the portfolio for battery storage, particularly for grid storage," says Meng.

The advent of a less complex, safer battery that is cheaper to make and easier to separate at the end of its life is the ultimate answer to the current sustainability problem with EVs. But until such a battery makes an appearance, standardising Li battery recycling is a significant move in the right direction.

And in about 2025, when millions of EV batteries reach the end of their initial life cycles, a streamlined recycling process will look much more appealing to economies the world over. So perhaps, by the time EVs become the predominant form of transport, there will be a good chance their batteries will be gearing up for a second life.

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FAQs

What is the largest problem with lithium-ion batteries? ›

The primary hazard in a lithium-ion battery is the electrolyte, which at its core, is flammable. As the battery temperature rises to above ~80°C, the exothermic reaction rate inside the battery increases.

What is the biggest cause of lithium-ion batteries exploding? ›

Keeping the batteries exposed to heat sources can be extremely dangerous as this may lead to an explosion. Another less common reason may be battery penetration, which may cause a short-circuit and, eventually, fire. Further, high voltage charging, or excessive discharging damages the pack.

What are the problems with lithium-ion batteries? ›

However, lithium-ion batteries are extremely sensitive to high temperatures and inherently flammable. These battery packs tend to degrade much faster than they normally would, due to heat. If a lithium-ion battery pack fails, it will burst into flames and can cause widespread damage.

Why lithium batteries are not sustainable? ›

Lithium-ion batteries contain metals such as cobalt, nickel, and manganese, which are toxic and can contaminate water supplies and ecosystems if they leach out of landfills. Additionally, fires in landfills or battery-recycling facilities have been attributed to inappropriate disposal of lithium-ion batteries.

What is the biggest challenge in battery management system? ›

There are two main design challenges to create the ideal BMS solution: Designing the internal battery pack topology to allow for monitoring of each cell. Including a mechanism for the BMS to balance the cells.

Is lithium battery toxic to humans? ›

Exposure to Lithium can cause loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain. ► Lithium can cause headache, muscle weakness, twitching, blurred vision, loss of coordination, tremors, confusion, seizures and coma.

What happens if a lithium battery explodes? ›

A lithium-ion battery explosion can result in severe burns and, in rare cases, even death. Lithium-ion battery explosions can be caused by manufacturing defects in the original battery or by contact with metal objects that cause an external short-circuit.

Can lithium batteries explode in water? ›

Hence, we should avoid attempting to extinguish lithium battery fires with water. The primary reason is lithium burns in the air we breathe. And moreover reacts with water to form explosive hydrogen that may develop a chain reaction.

What are the chances of a lithium battery exploding? ›

According to the tech reporting site CNET, your odds of a lithium battery fire are about 1 in 10 million.

What makes lithium-ion batteries better? ›

Compared with traditional battery technology, lithium-ion batteries charge faster, last longer, and have a higher power density for more battery life in a lighter package. When you know a little about how they work, they can work that much better for you.

Why Is lithium the best for batteries? ›

Better still, lithium-ion batteries retain their charge for longer and are composed of much less toxic materials. As the lightest metal on the periodic table, and the one most eager to shed its electrons, lithium is the ideal element to make powerful, portable batteries.

Is lithium harmful to the environment? ›

According to a report by Friends of the Earth (FoE), lithium extraction inevitably harms the soil and causes air contamination. As demand rises, the mining impacts are “increasingly affecting communities where this harmful extraction takes place, jeopardising their access to water,” says the report.

Are lithium batteries worse than fossil fuels? ›

According to scientists measure CED, production of the average lithium-ion battery uses three times more electrical energy compared to a generic battery. However, once the car batteries are produced, their rate of fossil fuel emissions becomes much lower than a gas-powered car.

How much lithium is left in the world? ›

Global lithium reserves are estimated at over 14 million tons, and (depending on who you ask) the amount of lithium needed to meet current goals is somewhere between 0.5 and 1.3 million tons. In 2021 lithium extraction peaked at an industry record of 100,000 metric tons.

Is lithium battery production environmentally friendly? ›

Lithium mining is a source of pollution and can have negative environmental impacts. However, there is no reason to think it will have a worse impact than the ongoing one caused by pumping oil out of the deep soil, by refining it and by transporting it to petrol stations all around the globe (by boat and car).

What are the disadvantages cons of using a lithium-ion battery? ›

Despite its overall advantages, lithium-ion has its drawbacks. It is fragile and requires a protection circuit to maintain safe operation. Built into each pack, the protection circuit limits the peak voltage of each cell during charge and prevents the cell voltage from dropping too low on discharge.

What are the challenges in battery technologies? ›

The biggest challenges for battery design are energy density, power density, charging time, life, cost, and sustainability. Multiphysics simulation allows researchers, developers, and designers to meet these challenges.

What issues do battery designers face? ›

The biggest challenges for battery design are energy density, power density, charging time, life, cost, and sustainability. Modeling and simulation are very efficient methods that can assist researchers, developers, and designers in meeting these challenges.

What are 3 interesting facts about lithium? ›

Interesting Facts about Lithium
  • Although it is a metal, it is soft enough to cut with a knife.
  • It is so light it can float on water.
  • Lithium fires are difficult to put out. ...
  • Along with hydrogen and helium, lithium was one of the three elements produced in large quantities by the Big Bang.

How toxic are lithium battery? ›

The research, published in Nano Energy, identified more than 100 toxic gases released by lithium-ion batteries (Li-ions), including carbon monoxide. The gases are potentially fatal, they can cause strong irritations to the skin, eyes and nasal passages, and harm the wider environment.

Are lithium batteries toxic when burned? ›

Li-ion batteries release a various number of toxic substances14,15,16 as well as e.g. CO (an asphyxiant gas) and CO2 (induces anoxia) during heating and fire.

Why does lithium explode in water? ›

Reaction of Lithium and Water - YouTube

Does lithium explode in air? ›

So in the daily electrode materials, we usually use alloy materials and graphite to store lithium atoms. These materials are like a small storage grid. The lithium atoms lie in it, and the larger oxygen molecules cannot enter. Their reaction will not happen, avoid explosions, and thus achieve safety purposes.

Can lithium-ion batteries burn without oxygen? ›

Lithium-ion battery fires do not require oxygen to burn and can be considered by nature a chemical fire.

Can dead batteries explode? ›

The Risks. There is always a risk associated with any battery. Old batteries can explode, leak, release harmful gases or, as we have seen, catch fire.

Will lithium batteries burn underwater? ›

As previously discussed in The Loadstar, battery fires require a shift in mentality when it comes to firefighting – blasting water will not immediately put out the fire, as Li-Ion fires can burn underwater.

Which battery does not explode? ›

Lithium-ion power cells, first commercialized by Sony in 1991, enable nearly every 21st century convenience: Phones, laptops, wireless headphones, cordless power tools -- even electric vehicles.

Can lithium batteries explode while charging? ›

And the test solutions. Most explosion and fire accidents in lithium-ion battery products occur while charging, even inside electric vehicles, power tools, electronic products, you name it.

Can lithium batteries explode in a hot car? ›

Lithium-ion batteries can easily rupture, ignite, or explode when exposed to high temperatures, or direct sunlight. They should not be stored in a car during hot weather.

What will replace lithium batteries in the future? ›

As a result, many researchers are developing aluminum-based battery technology that could replace lithium. Some of these even perform better than conventional batteries. Australian company Graphene Manufacturing Group (GMG) claims its aluminum-ion battery charges 60 times faster than conventional lithium-ion batteries.

Is there a better battery than lithium? ›

Batteries made from magnesium metal could have higher energy density, greater stability, and lower cost than today's lithium ion cells, say scientists in one study. Magnesium has another advantage too. Each magnesium atom releases two electrons during the battery discharge phase, compared to one electron for lithium.

How much longer do lithium batteries last? ›

So, how long do Lithium-ion batteries last? To sum it all up, the bare minimum that most manufacturers expect from their batteries is around 3 years or 1,000 charging cycles (whichever is less).

Why is lithium so important? ›

It has the lowest density of all metals. It reacts vigorously with water. The most important use of lithium is in rechargeable batteries for mobile phones, laptops, digital cameras and electric vehicles. Lithium is also used in some non-rechargeable batteries for things like heart pacemakers, toys and clocks.

Which is better lead-acid battery or lithium battery? ›

Typically for lithium ion batteries they are at least 95% efficient, whereas lead acid batteries offer efficiencies around 80-85%. This is important as it allows the battery to charge faster and have a more effective battery capacity, which relates to how much energy can be stored by the battery.

What is the difference between a lithium battery and a regular battery? ›

Lithium batteries, as opposed to alkaline, are capable of giving off a strong energy surge after a long period of low discharge. This makes them ideal for fire alarms. Alkaline batteries provide good, long-term power, but they lose strength over time.

Where are the largest lithium deposits in the world? ›

Australia is the world's largest lithium producer, accounting for nearly half of global production in 2020. Bolivia, Chile and Argentina (the “lithium triangle”) have the largest estimated resources, with nearly 50 million tonnes of lithium between the three countries.

What country has the largest supply of lithium? ›

With 8 million tons, Chile has the world's largest known lithium reserves. This puts the South American country ahead of Australia (2.7 million tons), Argentina (2 million tons) and China (1 million tons). Within Europe, Portugal has smaller quantities of the valuable raw material.

How are batteries bad for the environment? ›

As batteries corrode, their chemicals soak into soil and contaminate groundwater and surface water. Our ecosystems, which contain thousands of aquatic plants and animals, are compromised when filled with battery chemicals.

What is a lithium battery made of? ›

The most common combination is that of lithium cobalt oxide (cathode) and graphite (anode), which is most commonly found in portable electronic devices such as cellphones and laptops. Other cathode materials include lithium manganese oxide (used in hybrid electric and electric automobiles) and lithium iron phosphate.

What is the carbon footprint of a lithium ion battery? ›

For example, the Tesla Model 3 holds an 80 kWh lithium-ion battery. CO2 emissions for manufacturing that battery would range between 3120 kg (about 3 tons) and 15,680 kg (about 16 tons).

What are the dangers of lithium mining? ›

The common environmental side effects of lithium mining are water loss, ground destabilisation, biodiversity loss, increased salinity of rivers, contaminated soil and toxic waste. In the Salar de Uyuni, water loss is the main cause for concern.

Is lithium rare or common? ›

According to the Handbook of Lithium and Natural Calcium, "Lithium is a comparatively rare element, although it is found in many rocks and some brines, but always in very low concentrations.

Is there lithium on the moon? ›

And the Moon may also have ores of rare, incompatible, lithophile elements such as beryllium, lithium, zirconium, niobium, tantalum, and so forth.

What is the largest lithium mine in the world? ›

Mount Cattlin Lithium Mine in Western Australia, Australia, was the largest lithium-producing mine in the world, producing approximately 1,340 thousand tonnes of lithium and an estimated 1.8 million metric tons per annum (mmtpa) of Run-of-Mine (ROM) in 2021.

Why are batteries important to society? ›

Batteries are significant for their great ability to power a variety of devices, being able to be used in everything from cars to music players. The utility of batteries has made them indispensable to modern life. 1. Batteries are required to power the massive amounts of electronics used in the modern world.

What are lithium batteries used for? ›

Lithium-Ion batteries are rechargeable and are used in vaping devices, many personal electronics such as cell phones, tablets, and laptops, E-Bikes, electric toothbrushes, tools, hoverboards, scooters, and for solar power backup storage.

How are batteries bad for the environment? ›

As batteries corrode, their chemicals soak into soil and contaminate groundwater and surface water. Our ecosystems, which contain thousands of aquatic plants and animals, are compromised when filled with battery chemicals.

What is the most sustainable type of battery? ›

Sodium-ion batteries can become a more environmentally friendly alternative to lithium-ion batteries. They can also become cheaper and more sustainable," Brennhagen says. In the earth's crust, there is more than 1000 times more sodium than lithium, and sodium can be found everywhere.

Are lithium batteries recyclable? ›

Yes, lithium-ion batteries are recyclable, but the process is a bit complicated. This might be the reason why you're struggling to find a recycling center that processes this kind of waste. The first challenge to lithium recycling is that you can't handle those batteries like any other electronic waste.

What is the carbon footprint of a lithium-ion battery? ›

For example, the Tesla Model 3 holds an 80 kWh lithium-ion battery. CO2 emissions for manufacturing that battery would range between 3120 kg (about 3 tons) and 15,680 kg (about 16 tons).

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