Researchers have discovered a new method based on old mining technology to recycle toxic materials from the lithium-ion batteries used in phones, laptops, and electric cars.
Lithium ion (Li-ion) batteries are often found in phones, laptops, rechargeable lanterns and electric vehicles. These batteries have an expected lifetime of two to 10 years. But when their end of life comes there is the need to find a way of disposing the highly toxic materials from which they are made. There is currently no way of recycling the whole battery.
An article by Elsevier, a global information analytics business, says that a group of researchers has come up with a way to retrieve parts of the old Li-ion battery to produce high-purity active cathode materials for reuse in new battery manufacturing. This new method, described in a paper in the journal Sustainable Materials and Technologies, uses an old mining technique called froth flotation.
Froth flotation is used in the mining industry to separate ore materials from the commercially worthless materials surrounding it. The process introduces air bubbles into a slurry at the bottom of a flotation cell. These bubbles carry hydrophobic (water-resistant) particles and rise to the top to form froth layers. These froth layers exit the cell, leaving hydrophilic (water-loving) particles called tailings behind.
The technique can be adapted by adding collectors—additives which improve the particles’ ability to attach to the air bubbles. In this new application, researchers use froth flotation to recycle energy storage components within the Li-ion battery.
Within Li-ion batteries, the active anode and cathode materials are made of graphite and lithium metal oxide. This affects the effectiveness of the process.
“We have shown that if we use kerosene as the collector we can increase the hydrophobicity of the active anode materials, so high-purity active cathode materials are produced in tailing,” says Lei Pan, from the Michigan Technological University, Houghton, Michigan, USA, a co-author of the paper.
One important use for this new method is likely to be in the automotive industry. The next revolution in this industry is the electric vehicle, in which Li-ion batteries are a key component.
“These batteries are very expensive and have a limited lifespan, and therefore lowering battery cost by integrating recycling and manufacturing is a very exciting idea,” says Pan. “However, there are still a lot of challenges needing to be addressed.”
It is currently estimated that Europe recycles five percent of its Li-ion batteries, but the rate varies across regions. Projects to develop effective recycling technologies are underway in Europe, North America, and Japan, with companies in the United States and Canada leading the way.
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