Sustainability does not have to compromise performance
A solution for the global battery waste generation challenges
The global demand for energy storage, particularly lithium-ion batteries is increasing at an unprecedented rate. This means that careful management of the resources and extraction of all of the value from the 1st life of batteries is of critical importance – circular economy thinking must be brought to the space in order to reduce waste and cost for the industry as a whole.
In particular, the Plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) market has seen a large push recently. PEVs result in lower energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and urban air pollution compared to internal combustion engine vehicles. Policy makers have therefore been eager to encourage PEV adopted in larger numbers resulting in the introduction of numerous policies aimed at incentivising growth of PEV markets.
The viability of PEVs has been realised due to impressive technical progress, particularly with production of lithium-ion batteries with improvements to reliability and energy density, while prices have also fallen.
“From some of the studies we have been doing, we’ve found that batteries at the end of their first life application typically have in excess of 70% state of health compared to a brand-new battery”.Dr Amrit Chandan CEO Aceleron Ltd
One of the most interesting observations I’ve made about the battery industry is that there seems to be very little thought or care put into the simple question, what happens to the battery at the end of its life? Battery packs are not designed to be taken apart for reuse or recycling, meaning they are conventionally sent for material recovery recycling. This is a destructive process with significant waste – especially when you consider that the batteries still have typically 70% state of health remaining. It is of vital importance that hardware is designed to be taken apart so that repairs and maintenance on the battery can be facilitated, which is one of the Aceleron innovations we discuss later.
The cost of disposal for waste lithium-ion batteries is significant resulting in burdensome responsibilities that must be forecast many years prior without a clear understanding of how policy may change. As an example, the EU Battery directive & UK Environmental Laws state that lithium-ion battery disposal is the responsibility of the battery original equipment manufacturer (OEM). In the case of PEVs, this means the car maker is responsible for the disposal of the battery. This has typically led to OEMs either stockpiling end-of-life batteries, allowing more time for them to try and find a less costly solution; or collecting, sorting, storing and then shipping them to recyclers. Therefore, so much of how the battery is dealt with comes down to the chemistry of the battery as this will determine if the process for material recovery is worth it.
Currently, within the PEV market, there are 3-4 main different types of lithium-ion chemistry being used. However, the precise material composition is often a closely kept secret and is rarely disclosed to the material recycler. The most common cathode material for the batteries are LiCoO2 (LCO), but other compounds containing Ni, Mn and Al can be used as part of each manufacturer’s own proprietary formulation, balancing optimisation of performance and cost. Apart from the different material cost, each battery pack is often a different shape and size depending on the manufacturer. Furthermore, battery pack design is constantly evolving in an effort to further reduce costs and increase performance. Materials such as structural adhesives, welding, potting in resin etc. are used in the construction of battery packs which makes them very difficult for disassembly. This is a major challenge and adds to the cost of battery recycling.
If the lithium battery contains cobalt or other precious metals, they will generally cost less to recycle as these materials have a significant resale value. Despite lithium being a finite resource, its low absolute market value (ca. $9,000/t) does not cover the processing costs of the lithium waste. This is despite the increase in demand for PEVs which has caused the price of lithium to triple in recent times. Part of the reason for the high processing cost is the large variety of different materials present in the lithium battery. The active materials are often in the form of a powder which is coated onto a metal foil and which must be separated during recycling. Furthermore, the battery pack will contain electronic circuitry and cables which must be separated from the battery packs.
Another big challenge is that recycling facilities are geographically dispersed. In fact, there is only a handful in the whole of Europe, specifically located in Belgium, Germany and France. As the batteries are at the end of their life, they are classed as hazardous waste, which also adds to the cost of disposal. This is especially so if the battery is damaged in some way, i.e. if the battery comes from a vehicle involved in a roadside collision.
There are two main methods which are used to recycle lithium-ion batteries, though both of these methods are only economically viable for batteries with cathode materials containing cobalt and/or nickel. Other methods are being trialled but are often constrained by the uniformity of the feedstock, i.e. they are designed for one specific battery design. In all cases of battery recycling, the designed processes can be seriously damaged if there are contaminants from other battery chemistries.
It is important to note that when a vehicle battery is at its end-of-life, it means the battery is no longer capable of providing the power or energy storage required for automotive use. However, it does not mean the battery is totally dead. From some of the studies we have been doing at Aceleron, we’ve found that batteries at the end of their first life application typically have in excess of 70% state of health compared to a brand-new battery.
It is such a huge waste if the battery is recycled at the end of first application life, especially when the loss of material, particularly lithium, is considered. As can be seen from the number of different materials and the processing involved in making the battery, there is a large energy requirement to make the battery (approx. 91MJ/kg or 5,450kWh per Nissan Leaf battery pack). If the battery is sent for recycling in this condition, then we are throwing away a usable resource. We can further offset the emissions which were released during the battery manufacture by extending the in-use phase of the batteries’ lifespan. This mitigation of emissions can be further improved if the battery is used in an application where it is being used to store energy generated by renewable methods, e.g. solar Power.
Batteries being used for motive power are subjected to some of the harshest usage profiles as they are constantly under load demands when the vehicle is accelerating or being rapidly recharged. However, these batteries are still perfectly suitable for other, less demanding applications. For example, using the automotive battery to power a house is an ideal application which is a lot kinder on the batteries.
With the existing challenges for battery packs’ practical and safe disassembly, however, the reuse of cells for these ‘next generation’ applications is a daunting and commercially unviable task. Hence, we at Aceleron – a clean technology company – have focused our core business around finding a solution for the global battery waste generation challenges, as well as affordability concerns for customers, and proved that circular economy principles can be applied to the industry.
Based in the UK, Aceleron exists to build better and smarter batteries to unlock the benefits of sustainable battery technology for people and businesses across the world, while ensuring optimum performance, reliability and peace of mind for our customers. With our patented compression system and intelligent features, our advanced lithium-ion battery packs are designed to improve performance and lifespan of the packs, as well as reduce the lifetime costs, thus bringing the most sustainable and affordable quality technology for applications with long operating life spans such as renewable energy storage. It has been deployed in markets where performance management and serviceability are crucial, including energy service providers, systems integrators etc. With solutions in use across the world, our products have shown their robust nature operating in the most difficult environments, proving that sustainability does not have to compromise performance. Aceleron hopes that more companies undertake the circular economy approach when they design and build their products, especially in the rapidly growing EV industry, and consider not only the economic benefits but also the social and environmental impacts of their businesses.