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By Kate Cranney 18 March 2021 5 min read

Thousands of tonnes of spent batteries, including lithium-ion batteries, are discarded annually, opening up opportunities for new recycling efforts. (Image: John Cameron via Unsplash)

Lithium has been called the metal of the decade.

Lithium-ion batteries are in everything from laptops and mobile phones to electric vehicles and large-scale battery storage plants. And the global demand is growing. But what happens to lithium-ion batteries when they die? It’s an important question for Australia: the world's largest producer of lithium.

A new report — Australian Landscape for Lithium-Ion Battery Recycling and Reuse in 2020[Link will open in a new window]provides the most up-to-date status of lithium-ion battery recycling in Australia. Informed by CSIRO research and stakeholder surveys, it discusses battery markets and recycling technology, before identifying 18 opportunities for the industry.

The rise and rise of lithium-ion batteries

Lithium-ion batteries are a relatively new technology: they were commercialised in the 1990s. Compare this to lead acid batteries (found in most vehicles), which were invented in 1859. And while Australia recycles 98 per cent per cent of lead acid batteries, only 10 per cent of our lithium-ion battery waste is recycled, according to an earlier report done in 2018 by CSIRO.

“The demand for lithium-ion batteries is increasing globally, fuelled by the increasing electrification of transport and the renewable energy generation storage sector,” says report lead author Dr Anand Bhatt.

The global electric vehicle market alone grew at 40-70 per cent each year since 2011, with more than 2.1 million new electric cars sold in 2019. And there has been a parallel increase in the renewables energy generation storage sector. The most famous example is the Telsa big battery in South Australia, also known as the Hornsdale Power Reserve. Lithium-ion batteries will take over lead acid batteries to be the dominant battery type.

As demand grows for energy storage and batteries, so too does the amount of lithium-ion battery waste.

Lithium-ion batteries generally have a life span of 5-10 years (though current development trends are increasing this to 10-15 years). This, combined with batteries used in renewable energy storage systems, will mean a large volume of end-of-life batteries will be on our doorstop in the near future.

"This growth is leading to an emerging problem of end-of-life waste management," says Dr Bhatt.

CSIRO research showed that lithium-ion battery waste is growing by 20 per cent a year and could exceed 100,000 tonnes by 2036.

Why do we recycle lithium-ion batteries?

If not dealt with properly, lithium-ion batteries pose environmental and safety concerns. The batteries typically use hexafluorophosphate salt, LiPF6, which can cause systemic toxicity, respiratory failure, cardiac arrest and death even with little physical contact with the compound. Under certain conditions, if incorrectly disposed, lithium-ion batteries can create a potential fire and explosion risk. These risks are magnified when batteries are included in general landfill, due to the mixed nature of the waste.

But incorrect disposal is also a missed economic opportunity.

“Lithium-ion batteries containing valuable battery metals and materials that should be recycled and reused,” Associate Professor Jo Staines, Enterprise Fellow at the University of Melbourne, and Program Lead for the Future Battery Industries Cooperative Research Centre[Link will open in a new window] (FBICRC) said.

"The conundrum we face in Australia is that we don’t currently have the volume of spent lithium-ion batteries to justify significant investment, but we want to keep them out of landfill to prevent environmental damage and retain those valuable battery materials in our economy."

For Australia, this lost value could translate to a $603 million to $3.1 billion opportunity. If recycled, 95 per cent of materials can be turned into new batteries or used in other high value industries.

The industry can also reduce recycling cost by reusing lithium-ion batteries in second life applications (that is, repurposing the battery for a less demanding application). Chemically, a spent lithium-ion battery still contains significant energy storage capability. Often 70-80 and even 90 per cent of the initial capacity is still available at the common cut-off threshold for electric vehicle applications.

A comprehensive analysis of the lithium-ion battery recycling industry

The report released today is the most thorough overview of lithium-ion battery recycling in Australia, to date. It provides:

  • A global and national review of the economics of lithium-ion battery recycling. This includes the reuse of batteries in second-life applications, and how this relates to electric vehicles batteries.
  • A gap analysis on the current recycling and reuse technologies, covering everything from sorting, discharging and dismantling of lithium-ion batteries, and the recovery process for various components of batteries.
  • A comprehensive review of the status of the lithium-ion battery recycling industry in Australia. This includes an outline of what is happening in the different states and territories, including stewardship schemes and how waste is transported across Australia.
  • The battery recycling infrastructure in Australia, from collection (household and commercial) to processing.

18 opportunities to create wealth from waste

The report finishes by identifying 18 opportunities for industry, government, and research institutions to strengthen and grow Australia’s domestic recycling capability and generate new industries and employment opportunities.

CSIRO scientists coordinated a stakeholder survey across all sectors of the battery value chain to identify the industry’s key barriers and challenges. More than 30 stakeholders, including manufacturers, importers and retailers, the battery recycling industry, policy and regulatory bodies, not-for-profits and researchers, provided their perspectives on future opportunities, including:

  • Extending National Product Stewardship for all batteries and assistance for State Governments to establish harmonised regulations.
  • Addressing the risks associated with transporting and storing batteries.
  • An increase in consumer collection facilities and improve locations to provide greater convenience to boost collection rates.
  • Greater research into developing end markets for the recovered battery materials for use in alternative industries.

These opportunities aim to grow Australia’s domestic recycling capability and generate new industries and job opportunities.

You can read the full report here: Australian Landscape for Lithium-Ion Battery Recycling and Reuse in 2020.[Link will open in a new window]

And you are welcome to attend the CRC's free webinar on March 25: register now[Link will open in a new window].

The Future Battery Industries CRC brings together industry, researchers, governments and the community to ensure Australia plays a leading role in the global battery revolution. CSIRO research supports recycling efforts, with projects looking into processes for recovery of metals and materials, development of new battery materials, and support for the battery circular economy.

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