The demand for batteries is becoming more and more important. Yet raw materials for batteries are starting to run out, posing the challenge of supply. Recycling could be a solution, however this solution may not be sufficient.
Is recycling a solution?
While recycling may relieve some of the pressure of the battery raw material supply shortfall, it will not be able to meet the demand.
The electrification of the transportation sector has caused a boom in demand for lithium-ion batteries. Global lithium-ion battery capacity could increase fivefold to 5,500 GWh between 2021 and 2030.
Speaking at the Advanced Automotive Battery Conference in Mainz, analyst Max Reid, states:
“With the rapid expansion of the battery supply chain, we have created a high waste situation. Recycling can reduce the rapid expansion in carbon-intensive mining as well as waste. Together, recycling of production waste and end-of-life batteries could become an important source of raw materials to meet growing demand. Recycling also offers the opportunity to source materials from regions that lack natural resources.”
Currently, the demand for key battery raw materials is 97 kilotons for lithium, 186 kt for cobalt and 3,014 kt for nickel. By 2030, they are expected to reach 318 kt, 264 kt and 4273 kt, respectively. In comparison, the supply of recycled materials is expected to reach 130 kt for lithium, 112 kt for cobalt and 377 kt for nickel, respectively, by the end of the decade.
Insurmountable challenges in recycling batteries
An insurmountable challenge at the moment
At present, the challenges of recycled battery feedstock seem insurmountable. Most of the discussion focused on the collection and recycling of end-of-life electric vehicles (EVs). However, the process remains challenging.
First, the cathode, which contains critical metals in the EV pack, is overpackaged. It is found in packaging materials such as enclosures, interconnects, cooling channels and more. The result is a tedious recycling process with little value.
In addition, the industry is showing a willingness to use lower value materials as well as a shift to larger EV packaging. This effectively discourages recycling due to reduced throughput while containing less valuable materials.
Second, EV packages have long warranties and life spans. Recovering critical metals will be a long-term affair. In addition, there is an emergence of second use applications, such as residential or industrial energy storage. This will also prevent end-of-life EVs from entering the recycling system.
Recycled batteries would mostly come from production waste
As such, production waste will be the primary source of recycled materials during this decade. Battery and cathode manufacturing in China, Europe and North America will increase significantly to meet the demand for batteries.
Globally, analysts predict that battery manufacturing capacity will increase 3.5 times to more than 4,621 GWh by 2030. Moreover, China is leading the way in this area.
Reid also states:
“Ultimately, the amount of production scrap or end-of-life EVs will never be able to meet demand as demand continues to grow. We need to stimulate the expansion of virgin material supply while maximizing the recycling sector to reduce the deficit.”
In short, the issue of battery recycling is a problem for the entire industry. The lack of raw materials would be a severe blow to production where the need for batteries is growing. Recycling can thus reduce the pressure on raw materials. Nevertheless, the latter cannot solve all these problems. Thus, it will be necessary to explore other avenues to sustain battery production and meet future needs.