Unlike conventional battery recycling processes - hydrometallurgy or pyrometallurgy - direct recycling is more energy efficient, more environmentally friendly and avoids the destruction of spent battery materials. Let´s take a closer look at this recycling method with as many advantages as challenges ahead.

As the costs of lithium- batteries continue to fall and their performance improves, the electrified mobility era is now in full swing.

Lithium batteries are becoming increasingly common in our daily lives, powering everything from smartphones and laptops to electric vehicles and renewable energy systems.

However, this also means that in a few years, battery retirements will result in a dramatic increase in battery waste once they reach their end of life (EoL). Consequently, there is a growing need to find ways to recycle and recover valuable materials from them, while also minimizing environmental impact.

The economic and infrastructural challenges of spent battery processing discourage their proper recycling, and conventional recycling methods using pyrometallurgy and hydrometallurgy are energy-inefficient and generate secondary pollution, potentially undoing the environmental benefits of recycling.

The advantages of direct recycling

Direct recycling, instead, aims to be a mild and green process that does not require intensive energy or chemicals, avoids the destruction of spent battery materials, and directly rejuvenates degraded electrode materials.

This new recycling process can output well-defined cathode materials with high value that can be directly used to fabricate new lithium batteries. Also, the regenerated active materials from direct recycling might be more valuable compared to elemental products from pyrometallurgical and hydrometallurgical recycling methods. In addition, it may also reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions while avoiding the use of toxic chemicals.

Some other advantages of direct recycling of lithium batteries can be summarized in the following points:

  • Higher recovery rates: Direct recycling allows for the recovery of a larger proportion of valuable materials from the battery compared to other recycling methods. This is because direct recycling avoids the need for intermediate processing steps, which can result in the loss of valuable metals and chemicals.
  • Lower energy consumption: Direct recycling also requires less energy than other recycling routes, which can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental impacts associated with the recycling process.
  • Reduced environmental impact: Direct recycling can help minimize the environmental impact of battery recycling by reducing the need for the transportation of materials between processing facilities and reducing the amount of waste generated during the recycling process.
  • Better quality materials: Direct recycling can result in the production of higher quality materials, as the recovered materials are less likely to be contaminated by impurities from intermediate processing steps.
Advantages of direct recycling: Less energy consumption, more sustainable, higher recovery rates, less environmental impact, better materials & reused electrodes.

Some challenges ahead

However, it is important to note that direct recycling of lithium batteries is still a relatively new technology, and there are several challenges that need to be overcome to make it economically and technically feasible on a large scale.

Some of these challenges include developing efficient and cost-effective methods for disassembling and sorting batteries and optimizing the recovery of valuable materials such as lithium, cobalt, and nickel. This step should pass necessarily through a new defined design of the cell, module and pack.

Furthermore, direct recycling can be costly, making it difficult to compete with mining new resources. Recyclers require specialized equipment and skilled labor, which can be expensive. Nevertheless, the potential benefits of direct recycling, such as reducing the need for new resource extraction and lowering waste, make it an attractive option.

Safety is also a concern with direct recycling. Lithium batteries contain flammable electrolytes and can be a fire hazard if not handled correctly. That’s why, recycling facilities must take appropriate safety measures to minimize these risks.

A bet on the future

Despite the challenges, researchers and innovators are working to make direct recycling more efficient and cost-effective. Improved processes could make direct recycling a more sustainable option for dealing with the end-of-life lithium batteries.

Hence, at CIC energiGUNE, we will apply direct recycle approach in the framework of the European project Highspin, which aims to develop high-performing, safe and sustainable generation 3b high-voltage spinel LNMO||Si/C material, cells and modules with a short industrialization pathway and demonstrate their application for automotive and aeronautic transport applications.

The direct recycling carried out on these electrodes will allow to select the most effective reconditioning process aiming to achieve the same electrode performance as of non-aged electrodes.

Undoubtedly, direct recycling is a promising method that will offer a second life to the hundreds of thousands of batteries that will be wasted in the coming years. However, there are still many challenges to be met to make it profitable, and the research being carried out at CIC energiGUNE is already working on it to contribute to a more sustainable future both environmentally and economically.

Find out if we will be able to achieve it by staying tuned to upcoming posts on our social networks and our website.

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