Monday, July 25, 2022
HomeGreen TechnologyRecycling Lead-Acid Batteries Is Straightforward. Why Is Recycling Lithium-ion Batteries Onerous?

Recycling Lead-Acid Batteries Is Straightforward. Why Is Recycling Lithium-ion Batteries Onerous?

The lithium-ion batteries in at this time’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 earth.

Though lithium-ion batteries are set to energy a clean-energy transition, greater than 100 million lead-acid batteries are nonetheless offered every year in the US, largely as starter batteries for vehicles, vehicles, and boats.

When these lead-acid batteries die, almost all of them get recycled. The truth is, the lead-acid battery trade claims a home recycling price of 99 p.c. In 2021, the U.S. produced almost a million metric tons of recycled lead. Nearly all of that recycled lead was used to fabricate new batteries.

What’s fascinating is that none of that is truly new. Lead-acid batteries have been recycled for the reason that Nineteen Twenties. As early as 1930, the trade described lead for batteries as a “mortgage” fairly than a type of “consumption.” Previous to the Sixties, tons 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 have been additionally a major 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 establish the websites of deserted lead-acid battery recycling operations based mostly on elevated ranges of heavy metals within the soil.

Within the Eighties, nonetheless, the trade went via 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. At the moment, a dozen extremely regulated secondary lead smelters recycle the overwhelming majority of the U.S.’s spent lead-acid batteries.

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

First, the chemistry and format of lead-acid batteries is extremely standardized, which simplifies recycling. In contrast to with lithium-ion batteries, which are available in a variety of chemistries and quite a lot 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 dimension. That facilitates bulk processing.

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

Compared, lithium-ion batteries are much more materially advanced. That requires tailoring lithium-ion recycling processes to get well a variety 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 Eighties, the federal authorities and states prohibited the disposal of lead-acid batteries, because of lead’s excessive toxicity. Though some spent lead-acid batteries get shipped overseas for recycling, most are recycled domestically. (Issues have been raised about spent battery shipments to much less well-regulated services in Mexico.) That has meant recycling has performed an necessary function in guaranteeing the US has had an considerable and dependable supply of home lead.

Trying forward, the dimensions of recycling of lithium-ion batteries is about to increase quickly. Excessive volumes of spent large-format electrical automobile 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 affect the transportation sector by as much as 30 p.c between 2020 and 2050.

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

Though there are rising private-sector and governmental initiatives to advertise recycling in the US, the move of spent lithium-ion batteries, and the sources they comprise, may simply be diverted abroad. In the long run, a sturdy U.S. lithium-ion recycling trade can play an necessary 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 publish is customized from James Morton Turner’s forthcoming e-book, Charged: A Historical past of Batteries and Classes for a Clear Vitality Future (August 2022). You may be taught extra about Charged at Turner tweets at @_jay_turner


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