Recycle lithium today for tomorrowÂ’s cars

FUKUCHIYAMA, KYOTO, JAPAN - Blue Energy, a joint venture of Honda and GS Yuasa, a Japan-based maker of batteries and electronics, has broken ground for a new lithium-ion battery facility.

The new plant, being built in Fukuchiyama, Kyoto, Japan, will include manufacturing, sales, and research and development of lithium-ion batteries for hybrid vehicles. Like many other manufacturers Honda is hinging at least part of its future on lithium-ion batteries to power clean electrically driven cars.

The companies which are embracing lithium with such passion are focusing their hopes and dreams for clean vehicles on a relatively scarce metal. While at least one study claims there is plenty of lithium available from a variety of sources for anything we want to do with it, lithium battery developers are most likely hoping that those current evaluations of global resources are wrong and there is much more lithium available than now thought.

That kind of logic says that as the demand for a resource goes up so does the exploration of it.

Oil companies have found more crude than ever thought possible 100 years ago.

So, lithium might be in greater quantities too if lithium miners look a little harder. Abundant supplies of lithium would make it cheaper and cut costs for battery makers.

Part of the appeal, one of the green credentials of lithium, is its recyclability. Religiously recycled, much of the lithium stashed away in batteries should be able to be recovered, reprocessed and reused.

Given that lithium is so rare, and the market for it is increasing almost daily, youÂ’d think that there would be plans to increase recycling capabilities. The growth of lithium batteries should be equal to the ability to recycle them at their end of life a few years hence.

That is, for every new lithium battery that comes off the assembly line, there should also be some planned capability to recycle every one of those. That doesnÂ’t seem to be the case. Instead, battery makers seem to be following the usual market economics practice that waits for another party to fill in a need.

As it is, there is only one company, that I know of, that actually recycles lithium-ion batteries, Toxco Incorporated. (“Tox” must have something to do with “toxic.”) According to the company website, recycling those batteries is not an easy process.

When spent lithium batteries are received at ToxcoÂ’s recycling facility in Trail, British Columbia, Canada they are inventoried and stored in earth-covered concrete bunkers. The first step in the recycling process is to remove residual electricity from larger, more reactive batteries. Then the batteries continue recycling following ToxcoÂ’s patented cryogenic process and are cooled to minus 325 degrees F (-198 C). (Lithium, although normally explosively reactive at room temperature, is rendered relatively inert at this low temperature.)

Once frozen, the batteries are then safely sheared/shredded and the materials are separated. Metals from the batteries are collected and sold. The lithium components are separated and converted to lithium carbonate for resale. Hazardous electrolytes are neutralized to form stable compounds and residual plastic casings and miscellaneous components are recovered for appropriate recycling or scrapping. If the batteries contain cobalt this is also recovered for reuse.

For safety, most of the recycling process is done by machine. The company says approximately 90 percent of its lithium recycling process is remotely controlled, recycled by industrial robots.

For now, it seems unlikely that there are many lithium-ion batteries used in transportation ready for recycling: There are very few vehicles now on the road that use those batteries. When automotive lithium-ion batteries become more common, and more developed in the next few years the batteries could last 10 years or more, longer than the life of many vehicles. But, eventually the batteries will fail and need recycling.

Today weÂ’re a long way from major automotive lithium recycling. Still, as lithium batteries in vehicles get closer to full commercialization, then Toxco, and perhaps newcomers into the business will probably be gearing up to meet the demand. It seems likely that now many lithium batteries, particularly the smallest ones, are not recycled but dumped in the trash. Given that so much is banking on lithium at the moment, it seems a shame to throw away any of this valuable resource.

Toxco has a variety of facilities in Ohio, California, Tennessee and Florida. The company recycles all types of batteries, lithium chemicals, electronics, metals, precious metals, and other materials. The company also manufactures many lithium and fluorinated specialty compounds.


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