Black mass, metals-rich and plastics fractions from shredded batteries.
Photos courtesy of the ReCell Center

Estimates place the potential U.S. market for recycling lithium-ion batteries from electric vehicles (EVs) at $2 billion, providing key technical challenges are addressed. Dealing with those challenges is the objective of the ReCell Center, the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) advanced battery recycling R&D center at Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois.

The ReCell Center is a consortium of three national laboratories led by Argonne National Laboratory and funded by the DOE’s Vehicle Technologies office. It also involves the work of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Three universities also are collaborating on ReCell’s research: the University of California San Diego, Worcester (Massachusetts) Polytechnic Institute and the Michigan Technological Institute in Houghton, Michigan.

ReCell is in the second year of a three-year, $15 million program aimed at discovering methods of making lithium-ion battery recycling cost-effective. Jeff Spangenberger, ReCell Center director and group leader in materials recycling at Argonne, says ReCell is attempting to use new technologies to remove the cost liability of reusing and recycling batteries from electric vehicles and electronics.

A challenging chemistry

“There are chemistries out there where you can recycle and make money on it without charging the end user, but those are typically LCO (lithium cobalt oxide) chemistries, which are in cellphones and computers and such, and they have a different challenge, which is collection,” Spangenberger says.

Plastics from shredded batteries.

“There are current technologies where you can recycle these lithium-ion batteries, and those include hydro-metallurgical-based and pyro-metallurgical-based technologies,” he adds. “A cobalt salt is the product, which is a lower value material.”

Spangenberger says vehicle technologies typically don’t use LCO chemistries. To keep costs down, vehicles use less cobalt in their batteries; therefore, recycling them using currently available technologies isn’t cost-effective.

During its first year, ReCell focused on many small or bench-scale projects. As the program begins its second year, researchers are working to scale up the most promising projects. Spangenberger says in the third year—the program’s final year—the goal is to have unit operations in place to directly recycle EV battery materials in a closed loop.

The use of lithium ion-based batteries in vehicles began in 2011. The batteries usually have an eight-year warranty, which is now expiring for the early batteries.

“Right now it’s becoming the end users’ responsibility to take care of these batteries,” Spangenberger says. “So, there are really not that many coming back yet. And the ones that are coming back, you can’t just throw it in a drawer like you can an old cellphone. So, they are actually more responsibly handled. But there are costs associated with it.”

ReCell Center’s closed loop battery recycling scenarios

Early progress

Spangenberger says he is pleased with ReCell’s early progress, mentioning important discoveries.

“We’ve had a lot of important realizations about what work needs to be done to discover how to tackle this problem,” he says. “As we move on to Year 2 of this program, we will be focusing on these new areas that need to be addressed. The technologies used that we once assumed would work for preparation of materials to go to direct recycling, such as shredding a battery and then putting it in acid, there is a lot of contamination that goes into that process. One of the new areas that we are focusing on is trying to make the black mass, or cathode powders, contaminant-free.”

ReCell is working with the Responsible Battery Coalition (RBC), Milwaukee, in its first cooperative effort with industry. The collaborators predominately uses Argonne’s EverBatt model, which looks at all the different life stages of a battery, from virgin battery manufacturing through collection of used batteries to the reuse and recycling of the used batteries, making new cathode powders with the recycled products and then new batteries.

“The EverBatt model looks at all the costs of all the recycling stages,” Spangenberger says. The EverBatt model is combined with information from the members of the RBC “to find best practices, to find out how battery recycling can really be improved,” he adds.

Steven Christensen, RBC executive director, says the group’s work with EverBatt involves assessing the viability of different business models.

“We are looking at things a little differently than standard life-cycle assessment modeling and answering a lot of questions that the industry is asking right now,” he says. “Because this is an emerging industry, there are a range of issues, particularly with the amount of used batteries we have. There aren’t answers yet to even some very simple questions.”

Collaborating with industry

Christensen describes the collaboration between RBC and Argonne as being close, with ongoing exchanges of information.

“Our agreement with them is that if there are gaps in the data, we will go back to our members and try to get the information from the evaluations they have done. It’s a two-way street,” he says. “We are going to help Argonne if there is an opportunity to do that.”

Christensen says he hopes the process will be educational for industry and the public. The end goal is to distribute useful information to policymakers and anyone who wants to create sustainable practices around the battery life cycle. ReCell’s research also has a national security aspect.

Materials in one of 288 cells in a Volt pack.

Spangenberger says the United States doesn’t produce many of the materials that go into the batteries or the actual batteries. “We import a lot of them,” he says. “Being that we use this as an energy storage system, we don’t want to have to rely on other countries. Once we get these materials here, let’s keep them here. So, we need to keep that closed loop within the U.S.”

Collaboration with industry is an essential aspect of ReCell. “From the very beginning, we have included industry and make sure that we can make our work relevant to those companies,” Spangenberger says. “We are always seeking new partnerships. We had an industrial collaboration meeting in November. We received a lot of insight from the different companies, concerns and directions.”

He says closed loop recycling can be realized with hydro- and pyro-metallurgic-based processes.

“You can make metal salts that can go back into batteries,” he says. “There are companies that still do that today, but the problem is the cost and making sure you get the purities right. So, to make an economical closed loop system, we need one of the big opportunities: direct recycling. We are working on ways to upcycle cathode materials as they come in from these older processes. We need to keep contaminates out, and we need to be able to separate materials.”

Following ReCell’s three-year run, Spangenberger say he hopes industry will take a larger role.

“Ultimately, we hope to transfer the new technology to commercialization,” he says. “Any upcycling is welcomed. Downcycling is something we are trying to stay away from.”

John McCurry is a freelance writer based in the Atlanta area. He can be reached at johnwmccurry@gmail.com.