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The world needs to crack down on recycling batteries, fast

As batteries begin to pile up, auto makers, battery makers and researchers try to save them from ending up in the landfills. According to a report: Recyclers are primarily interested in extracting precious metals and minerals from cells. Access to these materials is complex and dangerous: after removing the steel casing, the battery pack must be carefully unbundled into cells, to avoid puncturing dangerous materials. The electrolyte, a liquid whose role is to move lithium ions between the cathode and the anode, can catch fire or even explode if heated. It is only after the pack has been disassembled that recyclers can safely extract the conductive lithium, nickel, copper and cobalt.

Used in the cathode, cobalt is the most sought after material used in batteries. In its raw form, the rare, bluish-gray metal comes mainly from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where miners work in perilous conditions. The world’s leading electric car makers are already moving away from cobalt, deterred by human rights abuses and supply chain shortages. This raises the question of whether recyclers will still find it useful to dismantle newer types of batteries devoid of the most valuable ingredients. “When you switch to more sustainable materials and less expensive materials, the incentive to recycle and recover them decreases,” says Jenny Baker, energy storage expert at Swansea University. She likens it to a dilemma in consumer electronics: It is often cheaper to buy a new mobile phone than to have it repaired or recycled.

[…] In a first step, recyclers typically shred cathode and anode materials from used batteries into a powdery mixture, the so-called black mass. In the board game analogy, this would be the first slip on a snake, says Gavin Harper, a researcher at the University of Birmingham. The black mass can then be processed in one of two ways to extract its valuable components. One method, called pyrometallurgy, involves melting the black mass in a furnace powered by fossil fuels. It is a relatively inexpensive method but a lot of lithium, aluminum, graphite and manganese are lost in the process. Another method, hydrometallurgy, extracts metals from the dark mass by dissolving them in acids and other solvents. This method, according to Harper, would correspond to a shorter snake in the board game, as more material can be scavenged: you go backwards, but not as many squares as when using pyrometallurgy. The process, however, consumes a lot of energy and produces toxic gases and sewage.

The world needs to crack down on recycling batteries, fast

Source link The world needs to crack down on recycling batteries, fast

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