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Posted on : Jun 07, 2018

The world battery market is growing rapidly thanks to the exponential growth of consumer electronics (CEs for short) such as mobile phones, laptops and other electronic-devices, the wider geographical accessibility to the car coupled with the accelerating hybridization and electrification of vehicles and the growing demand for energy storage solutions for Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) applications and off-grid energy storage facilities. A variety of forecasts point to a market value of around USD 200 billion by the year 2020.

Taking into consideration the key factors of cost, efficiency and environmental impact, nickel­cadmium (NiCd) and nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries have shrunk to minor players in the market, and are facing substitution. Lead-acid batteries (LABs) are still the main battery choice for Starting-Lighting-Ignition (SLI) batteries in automobiles, off-grid energy storage, UPS power back­ up  facilities, and some motive applications such as forklifts owing to their cost-competitiveness, mature production and well­established collection and recycling infrastructure in most developed countries. Lithium­ion Batteries (LIEs) have higher energy density and their lighter weight makes them a more suitable choice for propulsion batteries in electric vehicles (EVs) and hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs). These advantages will probably also result in LIBs making some inroads into the energy storage and renewable energy sectors as their cost becomes more competitive.

Problems resulting from mixing of spent batteries

As LIBs penetrate the battery market, and more LIBs enter the automotive/transportation sector, problems have arisen with respect to their end-of-life management. Clearly, recycling is both the economical and environmentally friendly path for recovering metals and other materials for reuse and mitigating the environmental impact of spent batteries.

However, due to the different chemistries of the various LABs and LIBs, proper pyro­metallurgical processes, hydrometallurgical processes or combination of both are required and there is still a need to develop clear recycling pathways for the different types of spent batteries in order to maximize the recovery rates and minimize safety hazards. To ensure safe and effective recycling there is also a need to ensure that batteries of different chemistries (eg. LAB, LIB, NiCd etc) are effectively sorted before they are sent to recycling facilities.

The most common safety accident in battery recycling is the mixing of different types of spent batteries. This can result in fire and explosions. It has been estimated that over 95% of the reported fire and explosion accidents in secondary LABs smelters are caused by the inclusion of used LIBs in the used LABs input stream as a result of ineffective sorting. These fire and explosion accidents sometimes result in a series of social, economic and environment losses such as production interruption, facility damage, pollution entering the environment and worker injuries. The increased number of incidents caused by the mixing of used batteries also damages the public image of the industry and has a negative impact on community relationships where it operates. Concerns over the loss of operating permits due to lead emissions caused by such fires or explosions are rising among the secondary lead smelters.

While there is no definitive data on record with regards to the number of incidents regarding the mixing of LAB and LIB batteries at secondary lead smelters, there is certainly ample anecdotal evidence that this is a rising problem that needs to be addressed at the international level. Mr.AJ Williams, Chief Operations Officer  of  Quemetco  Metals Limited, Inc. confirmed that this is a problem for his company, and that they suffered stop-time and damage to their battery wrecking equipment last year. A recent survey by the International Lead Association (ILA) discovered that 25 out of 26 secondary smelters the organization polled reported safety related incidents resulting from Li-Ion batteries in the lead battery feedstock. However, the severity of these incidents varies, and the damage caused was undocumented within the survey. End-of-life lithium-ion batteries from HEVs and EVs were not the main cause of such incidents but rather they were LIBs that had the same size and shape as lead SLI automotive or motorcycle batteries.

In this respect, it would be wise to be institutionally and technically prepared for separating spent LIEs from the stream of spent LABs before the spent LIBs scale up along with the mass adoption of hybridized and electrified vehicles. Data from the survey shows that over 50% and 70% of the fires and explosion incidents took place during the process of storage and battery breaking, so more identification and protection measures should be adopted before the batteries are stored and sent for breaking before entering the smelting process. Some secondary lead smelters have started to work on improved identification methods such as X-ray technology on the conveyor belt to sort out unwanted materials. Other technological solutions such as density measurement, sonic-evaluations, or RFID (Radio­frequency identification) could also be a possibility. Recyclers of used LABs should be equipped with tailored-made extinguishers, suffocation blankets and other relevant equipment to deal with the unexpected presence of LIEs.

To avoid losses, the battery producers, consumers, used battery collectors, batter y recyclers and relevant government bodies need to take actions to identify and separate different types of batteries before they enter recycling facilities. Some work is already being conducted in this area to reduce the presence of spent LIBs in the flows of spent LABs. For  example, the Association of European Automotive and Industrial Battery Manufacturers (EuroBat) has been working with the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) on Standard 62902 (Marking Symbols for Secondary Batteries for the identification of their Chemistry). The International Lead Association, EuroBat, Battery Council International (BCI) and the Association of Battery Recyclers (ABR) release d a safety notice to lead battery collectors, handlers, and sorters in 2015 warning about the safety consequences of lithium-ion batteries entering the used lead battery waste stream.

Penalties and incentives have also been applied by lead battery recyclers to raise the willingness of collectors to sort their stocks before putting on pallets for secondary lead smelters. 

Possible solutions

As proposed by the all industry working group established by ILA, EuroBat, BCI, Recharge, ABR and EBRA, a clear battery chemistry labelling system needs to be created, implemented and subsequently recognized and imposed by regulators as a compulsory obligation on all battery producers. The core function of this labeling system would be the easy identification of the type of chemistry of the battery even if the battery has been in circulation for some years and come to the end of its life cycle. This could be easily achieved by using different label colors and already matured labeling technology. The enforcement of the labeling system could be either policy guidance or stipulated and implemented by law. This would make it easier for different types of batteries to be identified, sorted at the collection stage and again in the separation process even if they are mixed in the collection process. Further actions need to be taken in perspectives of corporate social responsibility and accelerated lobbying for legilations and regulations to reflect this growing issue.

A functioning collection system of used LIBs must be created  Batteries are wholesaled to producers of CEs and car makers, and consumers only buy new batteries when the OEM installed batteries come to the end of life. Batteries retailers should take the legal responsibility of collecting the used batteries when they sell new batteries to customers.

Consumers should be obliged and financially incentivized to return the used batteries. Spent batteries need to be collected through the same distribution network to ensure a safe, low loss - rate and sizeable collection network. Spent batteries collectors already have the incentive to return spent LABs due to the fact that the economic value of the battery is larger than the cost of recycling. The reluctance to collect spent LIBs is  reflected by the charging of a significant disposal fee for accepting a spent LIB in some cases. That may change along with the scale-up and improved recycling efficiency of spent LIEs which may bring economic benefits instead of burens on the collectors.

Spent LABs at a secondary smelter go onto a conveyer belt and are visually inspected. They are broken apart in a hammer mill, a machine that breaks the battery into pieces. The broken battery pieces go into a vat, where the lead and heavy materials fall to the bottom while the plastic rises to the top. At this point, the polypropylene pieces are scooped away and the liquids are drawn off, leaving the lead and heavy metals. Each of the materials then begins its own recycling journey.

However, if an unrecognized or foreign material enters the hammer mill (such as a LIB), this can lead to a series of hazards.

According to Mr.AJ Williams, Quemetco Metals Limited, Inc. has taken a two step approach to address the problem. First, they have issued specific instructions to the collectors that provide feedstock for their secondary smelters, requesting that they implement secondary inspection of all LABs on the pallet. Second, they have a new training program for their workers demonstrating how to identify potential LIBs prior to them reaching the conveyer belt and prior to reaching the hammer mill. The ILA survey revealed that visual identification is the major method adopted to differentiate spent LIBs from spent LABs at all surveyed smelters. It is also important to note that currently, no surveyed company is using more than visual inspection of batteries. To tackle the increased risks, the adoption of more sophisticated and efficient identification system such as density measurement, x-ray evaluation, sonic-evaluations, or RFID ( Radio-frequency identification) could be standardized and popularized.

Recycling of LIBs

Economic and technically viable recycling processes need to be developed for used LIBs. The collection and recycling of LABs is already a mature industry, with over 99% of used LABs in Europe and North America being recycled with very high recycling efficiencies such that the majority of the used batteries are converted into material that can be resold and reused. In contrast, the collection and recycling of used LIBs from cars and other motive and industrial applications is still in its infancy because it is currently not economical to collect and recycle them due to the small numbers currently available and the limited content of valuable materials available to recycle from the used battery.

The LIBs installed in EVs are expected to come into the waste stream in bulk after 10 years or so. The already-installed recycling facilities for LIBs focus on recovering nickel, cobalt, copper and manganese instead of lithium in consideration of economic viability and technological obstacles. Lithium content accounts for less than 11% of material composition in terms of weight in NCA (Nickel- Cobalt- Aluminium) and NMC (Nickel-Manganese-Cobalt) chemistry composition, and this figure is as low as 4% in NCO (Nickel -Cobalt Oxide). Interms of battery weight, lithium normally accounts for 3% of the total and is often regarded as waste to be disposed and removed in recycling process.

Further research and development regarding the recycling of used LIBs in terms of economic viability and the development of feasible recycling processes is crucial to encourage the sorting and separation of used LIBs from waste streams. However, with the trend to reduce the cost of LIBs, it could be more challenging as there will be less valuable material available to recycle at end-of-life.

LABs and NiMH batteries have much simple chemical composition compared to LIBs, and the standardized LABs and NiMH batteries production procedures make the recycling of these types of batteries much easier. In addition, the materials recovered are more similar to  primary  rnaterials. At the same time both the cost competitiveness of the recycling process and value of the recovered materials from LABs and NiMH batteries make the recycling of these batteries economically viable. LIBs have not only a much more complicated material composition (LCO, LMO, NMC, NCA, LFP - C and LFP - LTO) but also much diversified production processes, which make it difficult to standardize the recycling process due to each of their unique characteristics and recycling problems. The following table shows the complexity of LIBs' chemistry composition.

To prevent the mixing of used LIBs with used LABs and NiMH batteries, both economic and some legislative incentives are needed. Sophisticated screening and separation technologies are required to sort out used LIBs from other spent batteries; state-of-the-art technologies to separate the cathode materials for maximum recovery of valuable materials are still in development. Companies have spent a lot in developing those needed technologies, and it is believed that such solutions may become available as the number of used LIBs rises.

Regulators shall also move quickly to set up regulative or even legislative imperatives to enforce the easy identification of different types of batteries and put legal and financial obligations in place for stake-holders to abide by.

Education and training should be given at different levels such as to collectors, transporters, recyclers and the public to raise the safety and environmental awareness of recycling of LIBS. 

Source: ILZSG Secretariat.

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