Lithiumion Liion

Recycling capabilities for lithium batteries have advanced significantly since the early 1990s. Initial methods focused mainly on deactivation and safe disposal rather than material recovery because of the prevalence and well known reactivity of lithium metal in the primary batteries that made up the bulk of the commercial product at that time

[26,27]. The tremendous growth in the rechargeable lithium battery market has stimulated efforts to reclaim the most valuable components of Li-ion cells such as cobalt, and progress has also been made in finding ways to reuse the lithium salts. Although EV-size Li-ion batteries have not been fielded in significant numbers, other opportunities to dispose of very large lithium primary batteries have required development of handling techniques that should also be useful for EV battery modules. For example, a four-year project to dispose of more than 4,500 large lithium batteries for the U.S. Navy and Air Force was begun by Toxco in 1998 [28]. The Li/thionyl chloride primary batteries each weigh 570 pounds, which is the same general size as an EV battery.

The first commercial Li-ion battery technology was produced by Sony and they are also the only Li-ion battery manufacturer to develop their own recycling process [29]. Production of Li-ion batteries by Sony began in 1991 and a battery-recycling project began the next year in conjunction with Sumitomo Metals and Mining Co., Ltd. The Sony Li-ion cell contains a lithium cobalt dioxide (LiCoCh) cathode and cobalt comprises 15 to 20% of the battery weight. Since cobalt is a relatively expensive material compared to the other battery constituents, its recovery is the primary objective in the recycling process. Besides the cobalt, which is recovered as cobalt chloride, iron and copper are also recycled from the used Li-ion cells, but the lithium is not reclaimed in the Sony process. If the cathode is changed to another material at some point, a major impact on the recycling economics could occur.

Toxco, Inc. has developed processes to recover lithium as lithium carbonate from lithium batteries and other types of lithium-containing wastes [30]. As much as 98% of the available lithium can be recovered, along with a similar fraction of the available cobalt (Co) and much of the aluminum (Al), iron (Fe), and nickel (Ni). The lithium carbonate can be returned to lithium production and Pacific Lithium, Ltd. has done this. More recently, Toxco has acquired facilities to convert the lithium carbonate back into electrolyte salts for lithium batteries. Clearly, it is feasible and profitable to recycle the cobalt cathode and lithium components of these batteries.

Recycling of the more valuable constituents of Li-ion EV battery modules should follow in a straightforward manner using the processes developed on the strength of the rapidly growing market for the smaller Li-ion batteries in portable electronic devices. A preview of the handling constraints that will be posed by larger EV modules has been obtained from the work on large lithium/thionyl chloride cells [28,31]. These must be sliced apart under cryogenic conditions to reduce and safely control reactivity until the lithium is deactivated.

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