Public and private sector leaders align to enhance battery end-of-life opportunities

A Li-Bridge forum delved into what the private sector sees as the biggest supply chain challenges, how it can address them on its own and where it needs help from the public sector.
Public and private sector:- A Li-Bridge forum delved into what the private sector sees as the biggest supply chain challenges, how it can address them on its own and where it needs help from the public sector.[Pixabay]
Public and private sector:- A Li-Bridge forum delved into what the private sector sees as the biggest supply chain challenges, how it can address them on its own and where it needs help from the public sector.[Pixabay]

Public and private sector:- A Li-Bridge forum delved into what the private sector sees as the biggest supply chain challenges, how it can address them on its own and where it needs help from the public sector.

The United States has a generational opportunity to develop, design and build next-generation lithium-based batteries that will power our vehicles and support the grid. However, the U.S. is starting from behind and must address significant supply chain challenges to retake the lead and create a secure supply chain and thriving domestic battery industry. The nation can address and solve the current dependence on other countries for the critical battery materials in electric vehicles (EVs), grid energy storage and consumer electronics.

Recycling is a key piece of the nation’s overall strategy because the batteries already in American homes, businesses and vehicles contain the very metals needed to supply the growing domestic manufacturing base. To tap this hidden strategic resource, companies need to collect the batteries and transport them to recyclers who can bring the metals back into the domestic supply chain.

But doing this cost-effectively is not easy. For example, many used batteries lack labels that identify the battery type. This adds time and cost to recycling because different battery types require different processes to recover the materials inside.

The good news is that battery experts are exploring a promising solution — a comprehensive, universal labeling system that could be used to create either physical labels or digital battery signatures. The idea would be to require manufacturers to clearly mark all batteries during production.

Labeling was one of many creative solutions brainstormed by more than 50 government and industry leaders at a recent forum aimed at growing secure, sustainable battery supply chains and recycling infrastructure in the U.S. The event was organized by Li-Bridge, a public-private alliance committed to advancing domestic battery supply chains. The forum was managed by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory in coordination with three industry associations — National Alliance for Advanced Transportation Batteries (NAATBatt) International, New York Battery and Energy Storage Technology Consortium, and New Energy Nexus.

“The minerals from lithium-ion batteries at end-of-life will be a key strategic resource in the future,” said Michael Berube, deputy assistant secretary for sustainable transportation and fuels at DOE. ​“By taking coordinated action now, we can ensure that the domestic battery recycling industry is well positioned to gather, transport, process and recycle these batteries to meet our needs.”

“The public and private sectors want the same thing — to grow the nascent lithium-based battery recycling industry in the U.S.,” said Venkat Srinivasan, director of the Argonne Collaborative Center for Energy Storage Science (ACCESS). ​“There was a great conversation to be had about what the private sector sees as the biggest challenges, how it can address them on its own and where it needs help from the public sector.”

The group agreed on the most impactful policies and actions to ensure a reliable supply of battery materials for U.S. manufacturers. These recommendations are detailed in a recent Li-Bridge report.

“NAATBatt is honored to have been one of the convening entities for this important end-of-life forum and accompanying report,” said Jim Greenberger, executive director and founder of NAATBatt International. ​“Addressing end-of-life issues is critical to the advanced battery industry’s continued growth and prosperity in North America.”

“End-of-life and issues related to circularity are vital to support a robust and secure U.S. lithium battery supply chain by helping recoup materials that are already in the products we use,” said David Roberts, director of Li-Bridge. ​“Some of the key takeaways from this report will help inform the best policy decisions at the state and federal level.”

Economics, economics, economics

A top challenge identified in the report: the economics of lithium battery recycling are poor. Why? Because the collection, transportation and processing costs to recycle materials are high relative to the materials’ intrinsic value. This challenge is expected to grow. Battery chemistries are shifting from expensive elements like nickel and cobalt to lower value iron-based compounds. While this can make batteries more affordable for consumers, it diminishes the cost-effectiveness of recycling — unless processing costs are reduced.

To improve the economics, one of the report’s recommendations is to boost R&D investment in low-cost ways to recapture low-value materials and components. The report also recommends more incentives and research to reduce the cost of recycling lithium — the element shared by most of today’s battery chemistries. Recycling lithium in addition to other elements could generate more revenue for recyclers.

“If we encourage recovery of lithium, domestic recycling infrastructure will grow, and recovery of other battery materials will naturally follow,” said Greenberger.

The Argonne-hosted ReCell Center can be a valuable partner in these research efforts. ReCell is ramping up research to recover lithium that is typically lost in recycling waste streams. For example, lithium often ends up in the water that recyclers use when shredding batteries.

Solutions for end-of-life logistics

Logistics — from battery collection and storage to transportation and disassembly — present many challenges to the emerging U.S. recycling industry. The report delves into numerous ways to make logistics more effective and less costly.

For instance, there is limited collection of spent batteries from cell phones, laptops and other consumer electronics. These batteries contain high-value nickel and cobalt, but many end up in household trash. The report recommends better economic incentives to encourage consumers to take their devices to collection facilities.

Many batteries and used EVs are shipped to other countries. The report suggests the use of export controls as one possible tool to control this offshore ​“leakage.”

The lack of a customized classification system for spent batteries — one that doesn’t simply classify all batteries as hazardous waste — increases transportation, storage and handling costs. To promote more domestic recycling, the report suggests more effective regulation to classify and transport batteries. Another recommendation: require manufacturers to publish decommissioning protocols.

Optimism for the future of domestic supply chains

The forum and report exemplify the power of Li-Bridge to bring together diverse government and industry stakeholders for a comprehensive view of supply chain issues. On the industry side, the expertise of forum participants spanned the full supply chain — including disassembly, transportation, processing, recycling and manufacturing. Government participants included DOE, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Building on the forum’s success, Li-Bridge plans to convene additional events. One possible topic is visibility and traceability of battery material flows through supply chains and at end-of-life.

By developing labels and other mechanisms to trace battery materials, it’s possible to reduce the leakage of materials to other countries. This helps to maintain the robustness of domestic supply chains and recycling infrastructure while limiting dependence on imported virgin materials.

Traceability can also give consumers more confidence that their batteries are coming from suppliers that follow strong environmental, social and governance principles. For this approach to be successful, it will be important to determine an appropriate level of traceability that does not overburden the U.S. battery industry.

“There was a sense of optimism at the forum,” said Srinivasan. ​“The first step in cultivating a domestic recycling industry is having companies with the resources to build infrastructure. Many new, well-funded recycling companies are coming into the U.S. market. That’s a good sign that we’re headed in the right direction.”

Li-Bridge is funded by DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Vehicle Technologies Office. Newswise/SP