The Secret To Profitable Battery Recycling

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New recycling method will have manufacturers salivating with joy.

With the switch over to a full-electric future all but set in stone, there are many side effects both the government and manufacturers will have to start planning for.

One of those is the recycling of lithium-ion battery packs to reclaim valuable metals. Recycling is invaluable to the supply chain. Manufacturers can't keep mining for new resources, as it completely defeats the reasons for going electric in the first place. Any kind of mining (especially nickel) is harmful to the environment.

To fix this, the ReCell division in charge of recycling at the Argonne National Laboratory has developed an elegant solution that can be summarized in one word: profit.

"Whatever method is used to do this recycling, the recycler has to be able to profit from it. We're putting the steps together knowing that, in the end, the total process is going to have to be profitable," said Jessica Durham, a materials scientist at Argonne National Laboratory.

You can see the appeal, especially in light of a large manufacturer like BMW wanting to use 50% recycled materials in the iX battery pack.

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As you can imagine, a system like this works on both fronts. A manufacturer maintains its green image while making huge savings on recycling costs. The current cost of recycling is high, with only harmful options available. Manufacturers can either burn batteries or soak them in acid to reclaim a tiny portion of the precious metals. Researchers say that there will be more than 200 million tons of batteries that need to be recycled each year in less than a decade.

To find something for the future, Argonne looked at old mining techniques. The Michigan Technological University in Houghton came up with a direct method called floating, and Argonne aims to increase the scale using profit as a significant incentive.

The method's full name is froth floatation, and it's essentially giving batteries a bath in reagents to separate the materials. One material floats to the top, the other sinks to the bottom. To make the process even more environmentally friendly, the reagents are mixed with recycled water.

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Froth floating focuses specifically on the cathode because that's where the highest concentration of cobalt is.

"The direct recycling pathways we're using help to make recycling more profitable," said Durham. "It's called direct recycling because we're trying to reuse the materials directly, without breaking them down into raw materials."

"The reason we've chosen froth flotation is that it's really simple to operate," said Durham. "And it's really simple to put these steps or processes together to get this nice, high-purity separated material. Sometimes if separation is challenging, you may have to run it through a tank two or three times to get high-grade battery-purity material, over 99 percent pure."

It will be the likely direction for various companies like Volkswagen. VW recently made some noise about recycling without offering a methodology.

Argonne is also researching battery construction to determine how the manufacturing process can be adapted to make the inevitable recycling process more accessible and cost-effective. This news comes a few days after a US company possibly found the solution to preventing EV fires effectively.

Argonne National Laboratory
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