One of the major problems with the transition to renewables is batteries. Over time, batteries deplete and lose their ability to hold a charge. This will have a huge impact in the future. Currently, we are in the first real generation of electric vehicles. In the coming decade, the majority of battery packs in these vehicles will need to be changed as they will not be able to hold enough charge to provide an acceptable range on the road. As well as the waste involved, there will also be the problem of how to replace the batteries. Currently, the global production of lithium is not enough to keep up with a demand that only keeps growing. While companies are currently looking at new ways to capture lithium, for example from saline springs, others are looking to open more areas for the mining of the element. New mines are expensive and they can cause environmental damage, including depriving the area of natural water sources. If we could recycle the materials from the battery packs to build new batteries, that would solve both of the problems above, and indeed many companies have been formed to look into the possibility of recycling batteries. We’ve even talked about some on this page in past articles. But, what if the recycled material is physically inferior to the original, or its specifications could not match what “new” lithium could accomplish? Even though some testing has suggested that recycled materials are the same as new materials, battery rroducers have been reluctant to use recycled materials until further testing is done.
Thankfully, it looks like the opposite could be true. According to research led by Yan Wang, professor in the Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), recycled materials from used lithium-ion batteries may even be able to outperform new lithium, making the recycled materials a potentially green and profitable resource for battery producers. Wang along with collaborators researchers from A123 Systems, Battery Resourcers, Argonne National Laboratory, Rice University, Brookhaven National Laboratory, and the United States Advanced Battery Consortium (USABC) have recently published a paper in Joule, a respected energy research journal.
The researchers performed a combination of physical tests, imaging, and computer simulations that compared new cathode materials to cathode materials recovered from old electric vehicle batteries through a recycling process that is being commercialized by Battery Resourcers Inc. of Worcester. Yan Wang is chief scientist and a co-founder of Battery Resourcers, and his previous research into recycling technologies led to multiple patents that WPI has licensed to Battery Resourcers.
“As demand grows for lithium-ion batteries, it will be important to recycle materials from used batteries, especially batteries from electric vehicles,” Wang said. “Battery manufacturers want to know that recycled cathode materials are not inferior to new cathode materials. This research shows that recycled materials can electrochemically match or outperform pristine, state-of-the-art cathode materials from tier 1 suppliers.”
Wang’s work is supported by USABC.