The Lithium-ion Battery Life Cycle: Mandates, Sustainability, Recycling, Recovery

My current work at South Korean Grinergy, a Green and environmentally friendly company, is focused on sharing their innovative Lithium-ion battery technology. I was recently asked to review the European Union (EU) Commission’s proposal on the regulatory framework for batteries.

For the EU, the proposal looks to secure the sustainability and competitiveness of battery value chains. On a side note, a friend who has been at the forefront of robotics and innovative mobility recently recommended that I, too, needed to look into battery life cycles.

Although the EU study is mid-stage, I found many of the mandates interesting. For example, beginning in January 2027 there will be a recycled content declaration requirement for industrial, EV, and auto batteries that contain Cobalt, Lead, Lithium or Nickel as active materials. However most intriguing is that the EU proposal offers some valuable insights into how governments and companies may address similar issues in their home markets.

This prompted me to look closer to home and the U.S, where earlier this year, the Biden Administration saw batteries among the nation’s key strategic interests. In a report by the Department of Energy (DOE), the government looks to make the U.S. more competitive in the battery market.

Image: Bloomberg

Lithium-ion

That said, regarding batteries the EU report cites that currently Lead-acid technology still prevails in terms of volume, but the Lithium-ion market will become greater in terms of value. Not to mention, Lithium-ion offers better energy performance and is the fastest growing technology in the market.

Used for some time in portable electronics, and now the preferred technology for e-mobility, Lithium-ion also has seen growth in stationary energy storage applications. Demand for Lithium-ion battery tech is expected to sky-rocket (yearly by more than 30 %) for the next decade.

With more batteries placed on the market the need for solutions for dealing with them when they reach their end of life is rising — this includes recycling and re-purposing.

Although Lithium-ion batteries are not toxic in the same way as Lead-acid or Nickel Cadmium batteries, they do contain elements that impact the environment — this includes the sourcing of Cobalt and natural graphite. Still concerning, the mining and exploitation of battery minerals have been associated with adverse environmental impacts (e.g., local water, soil, and air pollution; ecosystem and landscape degradation), human rights violations, and poor worker protection.

Recovery

More encouraging is the potential to recover the materials in waste batteries for the reuse in new batteries. With the unprecedented growth in the market, the demand for raw materials has increased significantly and recycled materials can be a positive contribution from both an environmental and an economical perspective. And, compared with the West, Asia and specifically China and Korea are at the forefront in recovery and re-use — recycling 70% of the retired lithium batteries.

More so, with strong encouragement from the Korean government, many of the nation’s top groups are actively engaged in some form of end-of-life program. For example, Korean steel producer POSCO will import waste battery scraps concentrated to a powdered form in Europe. Then this ‘black powder’ feed will be extracted into key cathode materials such as Nickel, Lithium, Cobalt, and Manganese through a recycling process in Korea.

Likewise, the Hyundai Motor Group, SK Innovation and LG Chem all have programs to ensure used batteries have second-life applications, or are recycled and metals such as Lithium, Nickel, and Cobalt recovered. These programs make lots of sense, as Korea is also one of the world’s largest producers and innovators of Lithium-ion batteries — with accordingly a high demand for these raw materials.

Life Span

The good news is that compared to other batteries in common use such as alkaline and zinc-carbon, a rechargeable battery is designed to last for a long time, be recharged over and over again — and most promising among the rechargeables’ Lithium-ion has the best performance.

However, even a rechargeable battery degrades over time and ultimately Lithium-ion batteries will cease to work. The pace at which batteries will reach end-of-life depends highly on the application and workload.

All said, to ensure Lithium-ion batteries retain sustainability as the demand grows in coming years consideration must be given to their full life cycle. This includes addressing concerns associated with the environmental impact in the sourcing of the raw materials, performance and battery safety, and eventually the management of battery recovery.

As in the EU, South Korea, and the U.S., we’ll also see new mandates in home markets for batteries to ensure they are sustainable, high-performing, and safe all along their entire life cycle.

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Don Southertonhttps://www.bridgingculture.com/
Don Southerton is the Founder and CEO of Bridging Culture Worldwide.

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