The NAATBatt Workshop on Lithium-Ion Battery Recycling, on July 9-10, 2019, in Buffalo, New York, will take an in depth look at one of the most important issues in vehicle electrification:  recycling lithium-ion batteries.

The program will look at four major problems in lithium-ion battery recycling:  collection of batteries, separation and sorting, transportation and storage, and recycling technologies.  Each of these four problems needs better solutions than those available today in order to ensure that a significant percentage of the lithium-ion batteries soon to come out of electric vehicles at the end of their lives are responsibly recycled.

But before we get to the “how’s” of lithium-ion battery recycling next week in Buffalo, it is important to review the “why’s”.  As pleasing as the term “circular economy” may sound, recycling any product is not a foregone conclusion.  Society will only devote the resources necessary to recycle something if the reasons for and economics of recycling are compelling.

There are three reasons why recycling lithium-ion vehicle batteries is important in North America.  First, recycling EV batteries is an important practice if one of the principal purposes of vehicle electrification is to protect the environment.  The argument for electric cars is seriously undermined if one of the consequences of electrification will be an increasing amount of battery waste consigned to landfills, junkyards and roadsides.

Second, disposal of high voltage lithium-ion batteries raises serious environmental concerns.  Although lithium-ion batteries themselves are environmentally benign relative to some other automotive components, such as lead acid starter batteries (excepting, perhaps, the fluorines in electrolytes), used high voltage lithium-ion batteries come with a special hazard: the possibility of stranded energy.  A used battery lying in a junkyard or by the side of the road poses a potentially fatal hazard to a person that touches it by design or by accident.  It is essential for public safety that all high voltage lithium-ion batteries by completely decommissioned and irreversibly discharged at the end of life.  This is the first step of the recycling process.

Finally, used lithium-ion batteries are a source of energy materials, which may be in short supply in North America.  The United States produces relatively minimal amounts of the lithium, Class I nickel, natural graphite and cobalt used in most lithium-ion batteries.  Anyone manufacturing lithium-ion battery cells in the United States will need to rely, almost entirely, on foreign sources of energy materials for those cells.  This tenuous source of supply could put domestic manufacturing of lithium-ion cells at serious risk.  Recycling could be part of the answer.  NREL reports that by 2040 the U.S. may be able to source up to 65% of its need for cobalt for lithium-ion batteries from recycling.  This supply buffer could substantially de-risk and help make possible the domestic manufacture of lithium-ion batteries at scale.

Once we decide that we should recycling lithium-ion batteries, the question become how to do it responsibly at the lowest possible cost.  To learn the answer to that question, I hope you will join us next week for the workshop in Buffalo.