Recycling Could Offset Potential Lithium Shortage

Ally Winning, European Editor, PSD



We have never relied more on batteries than we do today. That trend will accelerate as we turn more to renewable energy, electric vehicles and the IoT starts to really fulfil its potential. Analyst, IDC predicts that there will be 41.6 billion IoT connected devices by 2025, the majority of which will use some kind of battery. Batteries are vital to even out the peaks and troughs of renewable generation and form the basis of electric vehicle industry. They are also used in more and more consumer devices, often in throwaway products, such as electronic cigarettes.

Our reliance on batteries for energy storage technology has been causing problems for quite some time and these problems will get worse as batteries become even more popular. Often batteries are manufactured from materials that are dangerous or in short supply. The most widely used type of battery at the moment is made from lithium.

Lithium batteries used to be quite dangerous, but they have become safer over the years. That’s not to say they don’t represent any risk of fire or explosion if they are damaged or mishandled. This risk is increased when the batteries are disposed of, which is becoming a real problem. China is predicted to get rid of half a million metric tons of Li-ion batteries this year alone. There also could be a real risk of a shortage of lithium to make batteries in the next five years.

Although lithium is not an especially rare resource and demand for the element is relatively high, prices are currently low, which puts off companies planning new extractions. A real fear of new technologies coming through and displacing lithium is also acting as a deterrent for mining companies looking at investment. In an uncertain economy, it is difficult to justify the massive capital expenditure required to open up a new mine, especially when it can take up to six years to bring the materials from such a mine to market initially.

Reclaiming the materials from batteries that can’t be used any more could be an option to try fill the expected gap in supply. Ex-Tesla executive, J.B.Straubel has founded a new company called Redwood which is designed to do just that. The company is coming online right at the same time as the batteries from the first wave of electric vehicles are approaching the end of their useable lifetimes. Redwood claims it uses a bespoke process to extract up to 98% of a battery’s metals and graphite and 80% of its lithium. The company them sells the materials back to manufacturers to be made into new batteries.

It is good to see such an example of sustainability and the circular economy in action. Recycling lithium batteries used to be thought of as wasteful and inefficient. If Redwood can make this work, it will bear well for an industry that we will rely on more and more in the near term.