Why Lithium Batteries Must be Recycled



Mobile batteries are a small, but powerful source of energy. They consist primarily of chemicals and metals that enable the battery to hold a charge yet remain lightweight. However, these chemicals and metals are extremely hazardous to the environment, which is why they must be carefully disposed of and recycled.

Lithium batteries have anodes made of graphite and cathodes made of lithium metal oxides: a combination of cobalt, nickel, manganese, and iron. Lithium batteries also contain various amounts of copper and aluminum, all of which can be used as raw materials in new products, if they are properly recycled.

The recycling and disposal of lithium ion batteries is generally regulated by national, state and local regulations. Therefore, improper disposal or recycling may be illegal if not properly performed.

 

Despite this less than 5% of lithium batteries around the world are recycled.

While Lithium itself is not inherently dangerous, and the lithium-ion found in batteries is also benign, there are some concerns:

  • All lithium batteries contain a flammable and highly volatile electrolyte. They can be very dangerous and are known to heat up and even catch fire without warning.
  • Many lithium-ion batteries today contain fluorine, which readily combines with hydrogen to make hydrofluoric acid (HF). In accidental battery fires, HF is noxious, dangerous to the touch, and an inhalation danger hazard.
  • This danger increases as lithium batteries get to be older. As they age, the risk of an overheating incident becomes greater. Lithium batteries should never be kept in use longer than three years. In fact, replacing and recycling them after two years of use is the best and safest practice.

Older battery models such as Nickel-Cadmium (NiCad) and Nickel Metal Hydride (NIMH) are based on metallic cadmium and nickel oxide hydroxide.

  • Cadmium is a heavy metal that is highly toxic to all forms of life. These batteries require special care during battery disposal/recycling.
  • Nickel-metal-hydride batteries are not particularly harmful to humans, but they are toxic to plant life.

Lithium polymer batteries are enclosed in flexible aluminum pouches.

  • They are particularly vulnerable to overheating incidents.
  • We have all seen reports of cell phone and laptop batteries catching fire and causing injuries and property damage. As a result, all lithium batteries must be handled with great care during the disposal process and when they get beyond three years old.

Because of their volatility and flammability, batteries pose the risk of personal injury and property and environmental damage even after they have completed their useful life.

When lithium batteries arrive at a recycling facility, they are put into in a 1000 °C smelter, which separates out half of the materials for reuse. Recyclers can then sell the released steel, aluminum, copper, and cobalt to manufacturers. Volatile components like the batteries’ flammable electrolytes - the same stuff that can make accidental lithium-ion fires so explosive - are safely vaporized at the smelter’s high temperature. Additionally, one of the important post-smelting processes at a battery-recycling center is to neutralize the fluorine in the exhaust plume by creating calcium fluoride (CaF2): a harmless powder.

As millions of large electric vehicle batteries retire in the next decade, experts expect to see mountains of flammable, lithium battery waste going into landfills. Such volatile waste contains valuable metals, therefore recycling will be key to keep up with the battery demand.

 

GTS is actively promoting lithium battery recycling so that landfills will not be overloaded with these materials, and so that valuable materials can be recovered.

The recycling of lithium batteries does not currently extract lithium since the many different types of lithium batteries require different extraction processes. The extraction of lithium from old batteries is 5x more expensive as mined lithium. However, efforts are being made to commercialize the recycling industry in expectation of large amounts of disused batteries to come, which will permit more sophisticated recovery processes.

Recycled cobalt is generally used as a metallic powder to harden tools or a pigment for ceramics. Newer processes now allow cobalt to be used to make up LCO (lithium cobalt oxide) that can be resold to battery manufacturers.

Current recycling processes also produce an environment-friendly slag from the lithium. This material is used in different applications - one being construction material. Recovered lithium is also used for lubricants, glass, ceramics and other applications.

No recycling technology exists today that is capable of producing pure enough lithium for a second use in batteries thus lithium for batteries must still be mined.

In a world where so many organizations rely on batteries to effectively maintain their mobile operations, a practical recycling plan is essential for our environment. Participating in a battery recycling program demonstrates your company’s commitment to green initiatives.

 


 

»  Learn how to identify when your batteries reach the end of their life span and become dangerous with GTS Color-Coded Battery program

» Learn about GTS’ Free Recycling program