Recycling batteries

Recycling solar batteries and electric car batteries: what you need to know about lithium-ion battery recycling

Electric vehicles (EVs) are all the rage – and might just be the centerpiece to the clean energy revolution. There’s a catch, however. Along with all of those electric cars comes an equal amount of lithium-ion batteries to power them, and recycling those batteries is a complicated, but necessary, problem to solve. What’s more, home batteries like the Tesla Powerwall are usually made of very similar materials to EV batteries, so there’s even more to recycle.

Similar to solar panel recycling, it’s expensive and difficult to separate out the components of a lithium-ion battery to the point where they can be recycled and reused. Nowadays, lithium-ion battery recycling exists, but not nearly on the scale and at the efficiency we need it to as batteries become more and more popular.

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Key takeaways

  • Lead-acid batteries already have a well-developed recycling process. If you’re looking to recycle a lead-acid solar battery, it’s relatively easy
  • Lithium-ion batteries are recycled much less often than their lead-acid counterparts, and it’s not a very efficient process yet
  • By improving our lithium-ion battery recycling process, we can save money and protect the natural environment
  • Start comparing your options for a home battery installation on EnergySage today

Why it’s important to recycle lithium-ion solar and electric vehicle batteries

There are two major reasons why recycling solar batteries and electric vehicle batteries is important: recovering materials and protecting the environment.

Recycling batteries preserves and repurposes rare and essential materials

There are many valuable and useful materials in lithium-ion batteries: cobalt, iron, nickel, to name a few. Especially when it comes to metals like cobalt and nickel, it’s both financially and environmentally costly to mine and process these materials, so reclaiming and reusing them is useful whenever possible. Rare metals like cobalt will only become harder to mine as time goes on, which leads to more money spent on their extraction.

Recycling batteries is good for the environment

Aside from the monetary benefits of recycling valuable battery parts, just like recycling plastics, it’s good for the environment to recycle batteries. Those metals we mentioned above? Some of them are toxic and can contaminate the natural environment and our water supply if they’re just tossed in a landfill.

What’s more, the mining process itself is a particularly destructive practice for the environment. There are numerous adverse effects of mining the different materials in solar batteries, and the more we can recycle those materials, the less we’ll have to keep mining them.

Lead-acid vs. lithium-ion battery recycling

Large lead-acid batteries are used around the country and world in cars and as stationary storage systems, and only over the past decade or so has the deployment of lithium-ion batteries accelerated. Currently, lithium-ion technologies are the fastest-growing segment of energy storage options available, a trend that many analysts expect to continue for many years. This acceleration is mostly being driven by the rapidly growing electric vehicle market.

Today, traditional lead-acid batteries (like the ones in gas-powered cars) can be recycled relatively easily. They’ve been around for a long time, and scientists have developed and refined processes to reclaim their materials. Additionally, a lead-acid battery’s chemical makeup lends itself perfectly to being recycled: the battery’s components are easy to separate, and they don’t lose value in the recycling process. All of this leads to more than 90 percent of all lead-acid batteries ending up being recycled today.

Lithium-ion batteries aren’t quite as far along as their lead-acid counterparts, and the current recycling process is much more complex. Most lithium-ion batteries that are recycled today go through a process called “shredding”, where the battery is shredded up into very small pieces. After shredding, this so-called “black mass” is processed to extract valuable metals like cobalt and nickel. It’s a start, but this current process is relatively energy-intensive and lowers the value of the extracted components.

What makes lithium-ion batteries difficult to recycle?

Lithium-ion batteries have become increasingly popular in the consumer electronics market, and now because of their rechargeable qualities, are scaling up into the EV market and as storage options for wind and solar projects. The challenge is harnessing and integrating technology to make them recyclable to close the circle. First, lithium-ion batteries are classified as hazardous waste material due to their chemical composition, which makes recycling difficult. On the economical side, the resale value of lithium-ion battery components are low compared to the costs associated, so the incentive to invest in a recycling process is also low. 

How to recycle your lithium-ion batteries

In the United States, recycling a lithium-ion battery usually involves contacting a specialized recycling company. For example, Li-Cycle is a Canadian-based lithium-ion battery recycling company with plans to expand their U.S. presence in the next few years. Not sure who to contact? You can use Earth911’s battery recycling search tool to find a drop-off location near you.

Biden’s plan for recycling lithium-ion batteries: what’s coming?

Change may be on the horizon for lithium-ion battery recycling. In February of 2021, the Biden administration kicked off a 100-day review of four key supply chains, one of which was batteries. Led by the Department of Energy (DOE), that report has been submitted and contains several immediate and longer-term recommendations. Those recommendations include:

  • Strengthening U.S.-based manufacturing grants for battery research and development
  • Installing stationary battery storage on federal property
  • Developing financing programs to support the EV battery supply chain
  • Electrifying the federal vehicle fleet

Notably, details about the specific battery recycling program that was expected to be included in the administration’s recommendations haven’t yet been released. The program would likely fund research like what’s being conducted at the Recell Center, among other provisions. According to the U.S. government, the increasing number of EV purchases will add eight million tons of battery waste to landfills by 2040, and any plan from the current administration will look to get ahead of that flood of scrap.

Start your solar + storage shopping journey with EnergySage

Home batteries (like EVs) are rapidly gaining popularity, and for good reason. Especially when paired with solar panels, a home battery can help you save money on electric bills and keep the lights on during a blackout. The best way to make sure you’re getting the best deal on a home storage system? Compare multiple options on the EnergySage Marketplace. On EnergySage, installers compete for your business, so you can know you’re getting quoted high quality products at competitive prices. Start your home energy journey today.