This past week many NAATBatt members attended the Intersolar/ees North America conference in San Francisco.  Although the Intersolar/ees program (including the excellent and well-attended NAATBatt Solar-Storage Workshop, “Making Money with Storage Today”) focused on solar-storage issues, there was another issue that kept popping up in questions during the conference sessions and during the NAATBatt board meeting, which took place at the conference:  What is going on with the recycling of lithium-ion batteries?

The questions of whether and how best to recycle lithium-ion batteries has been discussed for a while.  A Toxco (now Retriev) project to recycle lithium-ion batteries received $9.5 million in Stimulus Package funding in 2009.  But little has happened in North America since that time with respect to recycling due to the fact that there are few valuable materials in most lithium-ion battery cells that would justify the cost of recycling.  Cathode to cathode recycling, which offers a possible solution to the cost-negative problem, remains a largely unproven technology.

But two issues are making the recycling issue more urgent.  The first is the growing problem of contaminated waste streams at lead acid recycling plants.  According to one NAATBatt board member, there have been 128 reported accidents (i.e., fires and explosions) to date at lead acid recycling facilities caused by the intentional or unintentional mixing of lithium-ion and other advanced batteries into lead acid battery waste streams.  These accidents have severely damaged equipment and pose a serious danger to human life and safety.  Further compounding this problem is the rising use of mixed chemistry battery systems, which combine batteries and energy storage devices (such as supercapacitors) of different types and recycling requirements in the same system.

The second factor involves, at least indirectly, the rising price of lithium.  Lithium carbonate prices have tripled over the past year giving rise to concern about future access to lithium.  China, which again seems far ahead of the United States in this area, is actively implementing a lithium-ion recycling policy.  The China Automotive Technology and Research Center (CATARC) estimates that there will be 120,000 to 170,000 tons of lithium-ion battery waste generated in China per year by 2020.  One NAATBatt member, that manufactures lithium-ion battery cells in China reports that it already obtains a portion of its lithium carbonate supply from recycled materials.

Industry in the United States clearly needs to move forward with a national policy to ensure the safe and cost effective disposal and recycling of lithium-ion and other advanced batteries.  Ideally that policy should be administered by industry rather than by the government.  Such a policy will require two basic components.  The first will be a designation of the party responsible for recycling.  Most likely this will be equipment OEM’s, though how this will work with products, such as lithium-ion traction batteries, where second life uses and separate ownership can be expected, becomes complicated.  The second will be establishing a “market pull signal”—a price for used advanced batteries in the market that will ensure that there is sufficient incentive for industry to separate lithium-ion and other advanced batteries from other waste streams and to recycle them responsibly.  Most likely this market pull signal will have to be set with reference to the price of lead, in order to prevent the intentional or unintentional mixing of advanced batteries into lead acid battery waste streams.

NAATBatt will seek to play a leading role in convening industry to discuss the recycling problem and in helping it create and administer a responsible but cost-effective solution to the advanced battery recycling problem.  NAATBatt, in cooperation with SAE International, will convene a workshop in Detroit next November to kick off this initiative.  Please check back in this newsletter for details, which will be announced shortly.