Recycling Lithium-Ion Batteries

How does recycling industrial lithium-ion batteries differ from their industrial lead-acid counterpart? As lithium-ion continues to expand in use across a variety of markets, this is a common and fair question to ask.

A large percentage of material used in lead-acid batteries today is recycled material, but the process is very energy-intensive. Lead-acid batteries must be disassembled into their components and remanufactured. Plastics, lead and other metals are melted down and remanufactured into new batteries. Lead-acid batteries do not see a second use; batteries that no longer hold their capacity nearly always have additional maintenance requirements. Not to mention the parasitic losses and extremely variable internal resistance, which could result in leaking and/or shorting of the battery. Plain and simple, lead-acid batteries must be recycled, not repurposed.

On the other hand, lithium-ion batteries lose capacity but retain their low internal resistance and reliable performance, even as they age. Small lithium cells such as coin cells, 18650’s and 26650’s typically get recycled after their first use, but large format prismatic cells may be repurposed for a second life before they are dismantled into their components and remanufactured into new cells. Large format lithium-ion cells can be treated as if they are functional lithium-ion cells, simply having less capacity, as their aging process is consistent and does not present additional maintenance requirements.

Giving New Life to Lithium-Ion Cells

Large format lithium-ion cells can be given new life in the following ways:

Adding additional capacity to an existing battery system

Lithium-ion batteries are more energy dense, so even after the system is ballasted there is typically additional space available in the battery compartment. Some industrial lithium-ion battery systems, such as the majority of Blue Line’s, can be augmented with additional cells to raise the capacity and performance back up to what it was when the battery system was new. A system restored in this way will be rated for the same number of cycles that were originally put on the battery.

Repurposing into less demanding applications

Repurposed cells are still significantly more energy and power dense than lead-acid cells, so stationary energy storage solutions are great applications for repurposed lithium-ion industrial cells – and they still need no maintenance. Lithium-ion cells having lower capacity can be recycled into applications requiring less energy density, such as stationary storage solutions. These cells can be used in systems for solar energy storage, emergency power back-up (i.e. the battery equivalent of an emergency backup generator), or for balancing power demand on the grid.

Eventual end recycling

Cells are eventually recycled into their constituent materials with a room-temperature mechanical process. The end products are a lithium salt concentrate, steel, copper, aluminum, and plastic.

Lithium-ion battery systems can be picked up by recycling companies and they will generally pay you for your battery cores at several times the value that lead-acid batteries are worth. Value of the lithium-ion cell is dependent on the format and specific chemistry of the cell. They are then broken down into their components and remanufactured into new cells. A properly used industrial lithium-ion cell should see a total of 20 years of use before it is recycled.