Battery recycling in a buzzing industry

The worldwide battery ramps up with deman

May 22, 2017

Battery recycling

ajor investment into R&D and new production facilities is taking place in the lithium battery sector, directly linked to the development of electric vehicles (EVs). This has caused a shift in predominant battery chemistries. Hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) generally use NiMH batteries, while plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) and battery electric vehicles (BEVs) use Li-ion batteries because of their higher energy density and other advantageous properties.

Preparing for the future

Once PHEVs and EVs become mass-market vehicles, the impact on the battery recycling industry will be massive. Battery recycling companies are presently investing and preparing for future needs of much larger scale recycling facilities, able to process Li-ion batteries from these types of vehicles. When battery performance declines below acceptable levels for vehicular use it may still be suitable for secondary use in utility storage. Eventually its performance will be insufficient and will require disposal. Recycling is needed for environmental reasons but also because of the valuable and recyclable materials the batteries contain. The economic incentive in battery recycling is the value of the lithium metal oxides used in the cathodes of these batteries: cobalt, nickel, manganese, combinations of these, or phosphorous and iron. Copper, aluminium and steel are also components of the cell structure. Battery attributes vary with cathode material and there are many different chemistries used.

Important cathode materials in Li-ion batteries are Nickel Manganese Cobalt (NMC) and Nickel Cobalt Aluminum (NCA),
which have a content of 33-80% nickel chemicals. NMC is used in a variety of electronic devices and in EVs. NCA is used in 18650 Panasonic cells in Tesla cars and as a blend with Lithium-Manganese-Oxide (LMO) in other EVs. Additional key cathode materials are LiCoO2, LiMn2O4 and LiMPO4.

Newer recycling processes

Depending, however, on the cathode composition and the recycling process, the value of the cell materials recovered will differ. Most of the Li-ion batteries available today contain cathodes that are primarily cobalt oxides, and the recovery of elemental cobalt drives the process economics. Batteries with lower cobalt content, such as many of those now being built for vehicles, are less attractive for recycling by current methods. Newer recycling processes are under development to recover active cathode materials (including the lithium they contain) that could be reused in batteries and are much more valuable than their constituent elements. The quality of the recovered materials must be assured.

In parallel with the technological advancement, the regulatory environment for the battery industry is changing and tightening. The European battery directive, which states that batteries must be recycled, is presently being reviewed. China recently introduced regulations that put the responsibility of auto battery recycling on the car producer. At present there are no harmonised regulations regarding battery recycling in the US and existing regulations are on a state basis. More regulations can be expected globally.

Due to challenges in the collection systems, it is estimated that only some 10% of spent Li-ion batteries currently reach the collection systems and end up being recycled. Most of these batteries are from various portable electronic products.

Other batteries presently collected and recycled are NiMH batteries, including batteries from HEVs containing 23% nickel, 4% cobalt, 7% rare earth metals, 36% steel, 18% plastics, 9% electrolytes, 2% other metals and 1% polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). Toyota Prius is by far the world’s top-selling HEV and the car manufacturer is committed to the NiMH battery, seen as a mature and reliable battery technology. With global annual HEV sales at 1.5-1.8 million for the last five years and a ten year battery life, growing numbers of NiMH car batteries will require recycling.


Worldwide sales of PHEVs reached 250,000 units with China as the leading market (29%) because of high incentives in place. Incentives have also made China the leading market for EVs. In 2016 some 500,000 EVs were sold, 55% in China. The industry anticipates sales numbers to shift upwards in the next five years, suggesting that battery recycling companies will start processing larger and larger volumes of Li-ion batteries in the next decades.


A leading recycler- Umicore Battery Recycling



Umicore’s precious metals facility in Hoboken, Belgium. Umicore is one of the world’s largest recyclers of precious metals.




Through its award winning zero waste and closed loop battery recycling process, Belgium-based Umicore Battery Recycling (UBR) is a leading recycler of NiMH and lithium ion batteries. By combining a unique pyrometallurgical treatment and a state-of-the-art hydrometallurgical process UBR is able to recycle all types and all sizes of Li-ion and NiMH batteries in the most sustainable way.

The Umicore pyrometallurgical phase converts the batteries into three fractions:

•  An alloy, containing the valuable metals cobalt, nickel and copper;

•  A slag fraction which is used in the construction industry. The slag from Li-ion batteries has the potential of lithium recovery. The slag from NiMH batteries can be processed to a Rare Earth Elements concentrate that is then further refined through a cooperation with Solvay; and

•  Clean air, released from the stack after it has been treated by the unique Ultra High Temperature (UHT) gas cleaning process.

The pyrometallurgical step utilises Umicore’s UHT technology. The UHT technology is pushing the boundaries for recycling and sets a new standard in Best Available Technology for metallurgical recycling processes. It is designed to safely treat large volumes of different types of complex metal based waste streams. It differentiates itself from other recycling technologies, by:

•  A higher metal recovery compared to existing processes and the output of directly marketable products;

•  Direct feeding of the batteries, which avoids the need for any potentially hazardous pre-treatment;

•  The gas cleaning system, which guarantees that all organic compounds are fully decomposed and that no harmful dioxins or volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are produced. Fluorine is safely captured in the flue dust;

•  Reducing the consumption of energy and CO2 emissions to a minimum by using the energy present inside the battery components (electrolyte, plastics and metals); and

•  Generating close to zero waste.

In the subsequent hydrometallurgical process, the alloy is further refined so the metals can be converted into active cathode materials for the production of new rechargeable batteries.

Umicore has long been a leading supplier of key materials for rechargeable batteries used in portable electronics as well as hybrid and electric cars.

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