Eli5: How is Lithium from batteries recycled? Bonus points for an explanation of what happens to lithium if/when it can no longer be recycled.

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Eli5: How is Lithium from batteries recycled? Bonus points for an explanation of what happens to lithium if/when it can no longer be recycled.

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It’s actually not as simple as it sounds. Lithium ion batteries are very hard to recycle for many reasons including the almost impossible to put out lithium ion battery fires and multiple different chemistries found in different batteries. It’s an extremely labor intensive process unlike recycling a regular lead acid car battery where you can just shred it; shredding a lithium ion battery is almost an instant way to start a battery fire. Lithium ion cells must be stripped from their plastic packaging or however the car manufacturer decided to put the cells together. The cells are burned then the remnants are collected and the metals are extracted from the ash. Cobalt and nickel are usually the only metals recovered in most recyclers as it is normally simply cheaper to mine virgin material.

The chemicals inside batteries don’t disappear (conservation of mass and all that), they just bind and unbind with other molecules to push and pull electrons from the other half of the battery via the 2 terminals. Charging and using the battery makes the 2 (or more) reactions go back and forth between a few states. The lithium is still there in some state or another. It just(over simplification) needs to be put through some other chemical reactions to return it to a pure form for reuse.

They’re shredded (if needed) and the bulk materials are separated (typically by chemical dissolution or burning in a closed process).
After that, the materials are collected and purified.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6w78-aSTIDY

Theoretically, you can keep reusing the material, and it’s typically cheaper to recycle batteries than mine/refine new material.

It’s very early right now, with a huge ramp-up in battery manufacturing, so we’ll need to watch as the recycling industry spools up. (Look at it this way, the recycling industry is going to be a battery lifetime – or about 10 years – behind the EV industry, so everything is in an R&D phase.)