Lithium Battery Recycling Presents Challenges

04-July-2019

Lithium Battery Recycling Presents Challenges

Lithium batteries are omnipresent in modern society, powering everything from smartphones and tablets to electric wheelchairs and alarm systems. They’re celebrated for their many advantages – they are low maintenance, and they’re cheaper, lighter, and more powerful than most other battery alternatives.  But once their use cycle is complete, there is one huge problem – very few companies/recyclers know what it takes to recycle them safely as this is a very complex process where a wide variety of pollutants must be effectively controlled and treated (e.g. heavy metals, Volatile Organic Compounds). As a result, less than 5% of spent lithium batteries are recycled today.

Lithium batteries pose the greatest risk before the recycling process even begins.  When they’re dropped off at landfills or overwhelmed small facilities, they’re often stored alongside regular waste (e.g. paper products, plastics, glass, etc.), the problem is these batteries are anything but regular.   Lithium-ion batteries are comprised of two electrodes – one positive, one negative – which are separated by a microperforated plastic and pass energy back and forth through this separator.

These batteries store a lot of energy and slowly release it over long periods of time, which makes them ideal for powering smartphones and laptops.  But when all the energy is released at once, it causes a short circuit, during which the plastic separator fails and the two electrodes touch each other – which causes what the recycling industry calls a “thermal event.”  In the U.S. and Canada, there was a 26% increase in facility fires in 2018.  Though some other factors may have contributed to these fires (e.g. pressurized tanks, fertilizers, etc.), lithium-ion batteries were frequently cited as a cause.  In 2017, 65% of reported waste facility fires in California were caused by lithium-ion batteries.

There are specific methods required to safely transport, handle, store, and recycle these batteries.  This makes it critical that organizations avoid sending their batteries to recyclers or landfills that do not have the sophistication to process them properly.  When disposing of and recycling lithium batteries, companies should search for a specialized processor that can discharge the batteries (to prevent short-circuiting/fires), neutralize hazardous internal chemistry, and recover strategic metals and parts that can be reused for the production of new batteries.

TES is bringing much-needed innovation to this space by setting up purpose-built battery recycling facilities in France and Singapore in 2019.  The facilities will go live later this year and will feature a proprietary process to safely discharge batteries before then crushing them into different fractions like ferrous and non-ferrous metals, plastics and black mass.  From there we can safely refine the material back into commodity grade elements (cobalt, aluminum, copper, etc.) to be reused in the forward manufacturing stream. This unique solution will allow us to refine the raw materials in-house, thus keeping everything under one roof and giving our clients a single source solution that is unmatched in the recycling industry today.

Even more interesting is what we are calling Second Life.  A well-known adage is that the best form of recycling is reuse.  TES is doubling down on that concept by introducing it to lithium batteries, which have long been known in the recycling industry as being difficult to process and are specifically regulated by most governments.  With our new battery facilities, we will introduce a remanufacturing process for eligible batteries in the mobility and electric vehicle space that will allow TES to give these batteries a “Second Life”; getting them back within manufacturers specifications which will allow them to be reused for their original purpose.

To learn more about TES’s solutions and the right questions to ask around safe/sustainable battery recycling, please contact us today.



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