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Battery Recycling: Powering Through To The EV Era

R. Keerthana speaks to industry experts, who share their views on the latest developments and challenges in battery recycling, as the market charges up for the e-mobility boom.

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March 6 2023
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As electronic products and electric vehicles proliferate across the world, battery recycling has gained gradual prominence. Given the hazardous nature of end-of-life batteries, diverting them from landfills by way of recycling and reusing becomes critical.

There are different types of batteries such as lead acid, lithium-ion, nickelcadmium, alkaline and carbon zinc etc and depending on their make and components, the recycling technology varies. Lead-acid batteries are one of the most common electrochemical energy storage devices and their recycling is carried out at different levels across the globe. Many countries do not have fullfledged recycling facilities, the parts are exported to Japan, China and South Korea and the supply chain is well-established.

Batteries are composed of metals including lithium, cobalt, and nickel. Endof-batteries are collected, dismantled, and shredded. The shredded material is then processed to produce black mass. Metals are then recovered from this black mass and re-used in the production of batteries or in new products and/or applications.

Besides the economical benefits, recycling of batteries also conserves natural resources. It uses up less energy than the mining process. According to the EPA, recycling one million laptops can save the energy equivalent of powering 3,500 homes in a year.

But recycling of batteries is not easy. Technological developments, especially for lithium-ion batteries, are still in their early stages. Processing, logistics and transportation present safety and financial challenges. But governments across the globe are bringing in SOPs and other regulations in time to meet the growing demand from the sector. Industry experts share the latest developments and challenges in the end-of-batteries recycling sector.

In an email interview with Waste & Recycling MEA magazine, the ISRI (Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries) team said that with the demand for electric and electronic products growing, it is necessary to design them for their end of life so that recycling can be done safely and more efficiently. “Consumers are demanding more products using electricity, hence more batteries will be used. Some product lines include electric lawn maintenance equipment, personal care products, hand-held devices and medical products meeting needs of an aging society. EV automobile demand is increasing. Currently, EV autos are in the single digits and are projected to increase up to 30 per cent in the next 7 to 10 years.”

Joseph Nforbin, Managing Director, Madenat Al Nokhba Recycling Services LLC, UAE, said, “Countries have set themselves sustainability goals and are promoting circular economy policies. So, there is a lot of innovation in the battery recycling sector. This industry is here to stay and there is a positive growth potential.”

Challenges galore

Daker El-Rabaya, CEO, Waste Processing & Treatment, BEEAH, said, Battery recycling and vehicle battery recycling pose different challenges. Regular batteries like AA or AAA are generally lead-acid or nickel-cadmium based. There are challenges to collecting and recycling these types of batteries. “Currently, however, the prevalence and advancement in recycling these are much better compared to EV batteries. Up to 90 per cent of the material in these batteries can be recycled, owing to the progress made for recycling technologies over the years.”

Talking about the unique challenges, ISRI cited non-availability of critical minerals needed for their manufacture and safe manufacturing environments as the key concerns. “Education on safe handling and the proper stream to recycle them is unique in the amount of damage they can and have caused to facilities and workers. A challenge for manufacturers is to design products for recycling. Many products containing batteries, including automobiles, are not designed for recycling.”

Mohamed Jabir, Director, Dubatt Battery Recycling, UAE, highlighted the challenges associated with collection and processing of batteries by the informal sector.

“In the UAE, end-of-life batteries are collected by established collectors following the international guidelines and safety regulations. However, there is also a significant activity in the informal sector, which collects and drains or dismantles the batteries before exporting the parts to other countries such as India and South Korea.”

In order to dismantle and recycle endof-life batteries in an environmentally compliant manner and to follow international best practices, the biggest challenge is the availability of equipment, he said.

Nforbin said, “Different types of batteries have different chemistry. And that makes it a challenge to develop a technology for each of them. This comes with a massive cost.” He too pointed out, “Safe handling of the battery is critical to prevent a thermal event.” “There is not enough awareness among the public and industries of the dangers associated with unsafe disposal of batteries.”

Iram Maimuna, Founder/Director of India-based E-Waste Social Pvt Ltd, also highlighted the role of informal sector and the challenges associated with it “India has a very strong parallel informal network, where the collection is done by the dealers and black mass removal is done by untrained workers in an unsafe environment. They are then sold to recyclers and manufacturers who then use the recovered materials in the production of new batteries.

Under India’s Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) rule, producers (including importers) of batteries are responsible for collection and recycling/ refurbishment of waste batteries and use of recovered materials from wastes into new batteries. “So most of the large battery manufacturers are sending end-of-batteries to recycling plants. But there is no mandate on how the recycling should happen.” Sharing her thoughts, Maimuna said, “The informal sector should be officially recognised as dismantlers. They should be given training, protective gears and incentives to carry out this process.” Not to mention the risks the informal sector puts itself and the environment into. There is a danger of hazardous waste leaching into the surroundings and residential areas.

Safety concerns

Echoing the safety concerns, ISRI said, “Safety concerns at the MRF begin with the product. Labeling by manufacturers as to how to recycle the battery is not well communicated. There is also an educational piece the municipality can do for their residents to increase their knowledge of what batteries can be recycled and how to recycle them. It is not through the curbside bin, but usually at drop off locations in some nationwide stores or locations set up by the municipality.” When batteries go through the curbside collection, they are often compromised at the MRF, and cause thermal events (often fires.) This adds to the expense of recycling and decreases the efficiency of recycling.

Contamination causes the fire

In addition, many products contain batteries that used to not have batteries and identifying these products are difficult at the MRF. Many of these products aren’t even supposed to be in the bin, the ISRI pointed out. MRF operators need to provide safety training for when a thermal event occurs and to have the correct supplies available, which includes a bucket of sand.

According to the ISRI team, “Good education for the consumer, designed for recycling, and a path to easy recycling will maximise safe and efficient handling of batteries and their potential negative impacts to the community.”

Technological innovations

Speaking about the mechanical recycling of batteries, Jabir said, “There are basically four stages. They are battery breaking & separation, acid neutralization, waste preparation & smelting and then refining. “A lot of innovations have come up in the first two stages over the years. These technologies ensure maximum output from the batteries and reduction industrial slag from the manufacturing process. “80 per cent of the global lead supply comes from recyclable batteries and it is possible to convert 95 per cent of the scrap batteries as usable products with emerging technologies”.

Daker El-Rabaya, CEO, Waste Processing & Treatment, BEEAH noted, “The UAE is a great place for end-oflife battery recycling due to the high number of vehicles per capita, advanced infrastructure, and the growing Electronic Vehicle (EV) market.” By 2030, there will be 42,000 EVs on UAE roads. 44% of the population in the UAE is also considering the switch to an EV. The transition to EVs is expected to occur faster in the UAE than in the wider region. There is a definitive need to ensure that we have the right infrastructure in place for this growth. Infrastructure for usability, such as EV charging stations, is just one part of the equation. On the other side, we need to ensure we have the right systems in place to ensure the long-term sustainability of EV use, he said.

In partnership with AUS and the Ministry of Energy and Infrastructure, BEEAH is at the forefront of the research, development and implementation of EV battery recycling solutions.

El-Rabaya said EV battery recycling is relatively new, but there have been significant advancements in recycling various components of EV batteries, particularly lithium.

“To truly achieve a positive environmental impact with the growth of the EV market, managing waste from this industry is essential. Both EV manufacturers and end users recognise this fact, which is contributing to the growth of the battery recycling sector. In addition to Lithium, we have also seen advancements in the recovery of cobalt and nickel. These three are essential elements in the manufacture of new batteries. Manufacturers like Tesla have begun closed-loop recycling programs, targeting 60% recovery from battery waste.”

“We have seen that as more material gets recycled, recycling technologies, processes and capacities are also advancing.”

Nforbin said, “There is a big market for EVs and their recycling in the Middle East. There is a lot of scope of innovation as well.”

Jabir noted “Since the last three years, the growth in the EV segment is phenomenal. But the commercial phase will take another 4 to 5 years. Dubatt has been receiving enquiries from the leading automobile manufacturers and distributors for the recycling of these batteries.” China has taken an early lead in this sector. “Dubatt is also in discussion with companies to share knowledge and technology,” he added.

But there are hurdles

El-Rabaya noted, “Compared to regular, single-cell batteries, EV batteries are larger and more complex in their design, consisting of several individual cells. Recycling EV batteries involves a careful disassembly of these cells so they can be recycled separately. EV batteries are also generally Lithium Ion based, which have a different chemistry compared to regular batteries.”

Today, up to 70 per cent of the material in EV batteries can be recycled. However, there is so much potential for the rate of material recovery to increase further, especially with integrated, specialised recycling facilities like BEEAH Recycling’s waste management complex. In addition to manual separation processes, the potential of AI and robotics can help increase efficacy and support the scalability of EV battery recycling, especially with the growing EV market in the UAE and the region, he added.

Jabir said unlike lead-acid batteries which are engineered for recycling, EV batteries are of different make and there is no standard chemistry. “Because you don’t have a unified chemistry, it becomes very difficult to recycle.”

Speaking about the risks, El-Rabaya said, “Similar to regular batteries, the waste from EV batteries is harmful to the environment and a threat to public health. The material is susceptible to releasing toxic, flammable gasses in landfills, where they can also cause fires.” Heavy metals can also seep into the ground and contaminate water bodies. Similarly, during transportation and recycling processes, EV batteries must be handled carefully to avoid potential fires, explosions and spillage. Health, safety and environmental factors should be thoroughly studied to ensure that material recovery is done efficiently, while also safeguarding human health and the environment. In addition to strict health and safety protocols, developing legislation on this topic will also help ensure public and environmental safety.”

ISRI said, “A challenge for battery recyclers is proper handling and safe shipping especially for damaged batteries; Another challenge is in plant storage, separating compromised batteries and uncompromised batteries prior to recycling. Potential for arc flash hazard and electric shock - mainly for dismantlers and processors and release of harmful gasses during thermal events are other issues.

ISRI is reaching out to manufacturers to this end. One initiative manufacturers could pursue is a battery take-back programme, whereby trained personnel can safely remove, and prepare the batteries for the next step of recycling.

Talking about the Indian scenario, Maimuna said, “Li-ion batteries recycling is still in its nascent stage. But several patents are being filed for its recycling technology. She pointed out that transportation of lithium-ion batteries from one place to another is a big challenge.

"This is a new space and there is an urgent need for research and development in this sector as we are still unaware of the risks involved in recycling EV batteries and the pollutants they emit. We will have to wait and watch how this industry takes off.”