MIDLAND, Mich.—There are plenty of lingering questions surrounding the auto industry's shift to electric vehicles, but one of the most pressing is the end-of-life prospects for the massive lithium-ion batteries driving tomorrow's cars.
Freudenberg Sealing Technologies' Xalt Energy L.L.C. believes it's one step closer to having the answer.
With support from the U.S. Department of Energy's Vehicle Technologies Office's ReCell Center, Midland-based Xalt, a developer and manufacturer of lithium-ion technology solutions, is testing a separation process that allows for direct recycling of scrap electrode materials. The aim, Freudenberg said in a news release, is to use the recycled material in new electrodes.
If successful, the process not only could offer a significant cost benefit for battery manufacturers by reducing the use of virgin raw materials in the battery-making process, Xalt also believes it could lessen the strain on supply chains of critical materials such as nickel-magnesium-cobalt oxide.
So far, "the results look promising," John Camardese, director of cell development at Xalt Energy, said in a news release. "This technology would enable us to directly recycle our coated scrap to recover expensive NMC for use in slurry. This will be a real game changer."
And, according to Freudenberg, that change can't come soon enough.
As industries worldwide establish and set about reaching carbon neutrality goals, investments are being made in alternative powertrain technologies. IHS Markit estimates that global demand for lithium-ion batteries will rise from 230 GWg last year to 1,700 GWh by 2030, making recycling a critical factor in the development of the technologies moving forward.
"Multiple analyst reports indicate that 180 kilotons of lithium, 450 kt of nickel, and 930 kt of cobalt will be needed from recycled sources to meet global lithium-ion battery requirements in 2030," Xalt said.
Scientists at the Department of Energy's Argonne and Oak Ridge National Laboratories in Illinois and Tennessee are addressing the issue from the inside out. They proposed a recycling process that, unlike existing hydro- and pyro-metallurgical methods, would separate and rejuvenate cycle-damaged, nickel-manganese-cobalt foil coatings for reuse in new batteries.
Camardese notes that the newly developed process also is less energy intensive and more sustainable than the more traditional recycling processes being used.
Testing the new recycling plan was easier said than done, given the recyclable resources available. With EVs being relatively young and the life of their batteries being relatively long, the researchers lacked enough end-of-life materials for the project. This is where Xalt really stepped in to help.
"Right now, there still aren't a lot of end-of-life electric vehicle batteries available because they last such a long time," Jeff Spangenberger, director of the ReCell Center, said in a news release. "We needed a feedstock of battery materials in order to pursue this early-stage technology. The coated foil scrap and spent pouch cells that Xalt Energy has provided to us has enabled us to conduct this recycling program."
Ultimately, ReCell and Xalt hope to establish path for sustainability within the next-generation the auto industry. A recycling process that helps to preserve critical raw materials, shorten supply chains and allow for profitability are at the heart of that effort.
"At the end of the day, battery recycling needs to be profitable," Spangenberger agreed. "Economies of scale are really going to help, but right now there are a lot of batteries out there that cost money to recycle. The work the ReCell Center and XALT Energy are doing together is helping to get us to the next level."