From The Atlantic:
“But electrification has its own environmental impacts. In particular, batteries in cellphones and electric cars require minerals that have to be mined. There is a real tension emerging between environmentalists who are very concerned about the problems associated with the renewable-energy transition and those who see those issues as minor and tractable compared with the ongoing disaster that is the fossil-fuel economy.
Like fossil fuels, lithium, cobalt, nickel, and other components must be extracted in large amounts from the Earth. In theory, they can be recycled, but they come with a high up-front cost—so high, even, that some people think it’s not worth paying.
the minerals in a battery, in theory, have to be wrested from Mother Earth only once. After those minerals are in circulation, battery recycling should eventually be able to create a nearly closed loop.
“You have a cobalt atom. It’s the same cobalt atom when you’re done with recycling,” says Jeff Spangenberger, the head of the ReCell Center in Lemont, Illinois, where industry, academia, and government laboratories collaborate to improve battery-recycling technologies. “You can infinitely recycle these metals.” The work ReCell does is premised on the expectation that someday, most metals in new batteries will come from old batteries.
That infinity loop can’t really start for several decades. With the number of new electric vehicles increasing every year, there simply aren’t enough old batteries available yet to supply the needed minerals. According to Spangenberger, the useful life of a vehicle is about 15 years. (Tell that to my Volvo.) The very first EVs with lithium-ion batteries were first sold in 2008. “So those haven’t even reached end-of-life yet,” he told me. “At some point, we’re going to reach an inflection point where we will actually have most of the materials we need in our end-of-life products.” And while some recycling systems feel good for the consumer but don’t actually work, 99 percent of the lead-acid batteries in most gas-powered cars are recycled today, suggesting that if recycling infrastructure exists, the batteries will find their way to it.
That infrastructure is being developed now. The company Li-Cycle, for instance, is working on a “spoke and hub” battery-recycling system. At the more numerous “spoke” facilities, waste from battery manufacturing and dead batteries is shredded while submerged in tanks of a proprietary fluid. (I asked Kunal Phalpher, the chief strategy officer, if the fluid was “like Coke,” in the sense that he couldn’t tell me the recipe. “Yes,” he replied. “But it isn’t actually Coke.”) What emerges is plastics, copper, and aluminum, and a black powder that is 40 percent graphite and lesser amounts of lithium, nickel, and cobalt. The name for this substance is very metal: black mass.
The black mass is then transported to a centralized “hub” facility, where the various elements are separated out. Whereas the spoke facilities look like a converter belt of batteries getting dumped into a shredder, the more complex hub undertakes all sorts of hydrometallurgical processes. It looks, Phalpher told me, more like the kind of place you might set an action sequence in an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie—say, Commando—“a series of pipes and tanks and pumps.”
At the end, 95 percent of battery minerals are recovered. So there is a bit of loss. There will likely always be some loss in the system—some minerals that can’t be recovered, some batteries that never reach the recycling center.”