This year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to three pioneers in the development of rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. These batteries are now found everywhere and are a vital component of today’s electric cars.
But lithium is also quite rare, and is usually present only in small concentrations where it is found in the Earth’s crust. Yet recycling has been only minimally profitable. In fact, EV owners have had to pay to recycle their car batteries.
Now a research group at Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) wants to collaborate with industry to do something about that.
“Our goal is 100 per cent recycling of lithium from electric car batteries,” says postdoctoral fellow Sulalit Bandyopadhyay at NTNU’s Department of Chemical Engineering.
Variation of familiar technology
“We’re the only research group in Norway that is studying this method,” says Bandyopadhyay.
The goal is to recover lithium from EV batteries using hydrometallurgy. This means that a raw material is first dissolved in water and that the substance you want to extract is then precipitated. Norwegian companies have longstanding experience with this method. The process is used to extract nickel and zinc, for example.
But lithium from electric car batteries isn’t recycled. For a long time, these batteries – in the name of the environment – were sent halfway around the globe for recycling in China. Now the Chinese have enough of their own trash and no longer accept the West’s garbage. Instead, Norwegian EV batteries are stored in Sandefjord municipality, where they are taken apart and sent for further sorting and recycling in Europe, North America and Asia.
In Europe, the batteries often end up at a recycling plant in Belgium, Germany or Canada. The raw material is incinerated, and copper and nickel from the batteries are recycled. But in this combustion process, the lithium is lost. That means we need a new method that can also preserve the lithium for recycling. Hydrometallurgical methods are promising and are already used to some extent, but without extracting the lithium.
Bandyopadhyay’s group is working to develop a process that recovers lithium, nickel and cobalt from what is called a black mass. Black mass is a black powder that consists of the materials in the battery that are active, meaning the material that is found on the electrodes. The composition of the material varies depending on what kind of chemistry is used to make the battery cells, but typically contains nickel, cobalt, manganese, lithium and carbon.
“We plan to launch a pilot plant in 2024 and a full-scale plant in 2027,” says Bandyopadhyay.
Will become profitable
“Recycling lithium from EV batteries isn’t financially profitable yet, but a Bloomberg report shows that this will change in the next few years,” Bandyopadhyay says.
The main reason for the current low profitability is that the volumes are still so small. EV batteries normally have a lifetime of around 10 years, which means that the vast majority of these batteries still work. But in a few years there will be enough electric cars that the number of used batteries in Norway will rise sharply. Then there will also be more money in recycling. It’s important to get the technology and equipment in place before that time.
This article is produced and financed by NTNU Norwegian University of Science and Technology.