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Green chemistry key to recycle lithium-ion batteries

Are current recycling technologies of Li-ion batteries indeed sustainable? A new article envisions a sustainable recycling process operating on the principles of green chemistry.

Image of Circular Economy
Sustainable recycling of Li-ion batteries within circular principles. “Secondary mining” of used batteries is used as source of critical raw materials such as cobalt instead of exploiting natural resources. Image: Bruno Manzolli

Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries are the greatest advancement in energy storage since the 1990s, but the used batteries of these devices have caused a growing hazard to the environment. This could be theoretically counter-balanced by recycling, but the question is whether current recycling technologies of Li-ion batteries are indeed sustainable?

In a recently published article in Advanced Energy Materials, one of the leading scientific journals in materials science, researchers from the Department of Materials and Environmental Chemistry (MMK) of Stockholm University in collaboration with AC2T research GmbH (Austria) and Gebze Technical University (Turkey) have evaluated the current state of the art in recycling and pointed out what is required to realize of “sustainable recycling”.
“The commercial breakthrough of Li-ion batteries (LIBs) in the 1990s has shaped today’s energy storage landscape, but the disposed batteries represent a growing hazard to the environment and recycling processes in industry are far from being considered as green,” says Jedrzej Piatek, the main author of the study who is a PhD student in the Slabon group at MMK.

Assistant Professor Mika Sipponen at MMK points out: “In a linear economy your goal is to postpone the accumulation of waste within time, but you cannot prevent waste generation. The counterpart is a circular economy which is based on sustainable production and recycling aiming at zero-waste generation.“


No recycling process fulfills circular requirements

Co-authors Semih Afyon and Serhiy Budnyk emphasize that there is no patented recycling process that fulfills the circular requirements. Current best solutions in the industry apply high processing temperature, recover the critical raw materials only in lower purity grade making them not suited for manufacturing new batteries, or even generate toxic chemicals during the recycling process itself.  

Professor Adam Slabon, the coordinator of this study, summarizes the current state of the art in batteries recycling in industry: “One may be tempted to say that the only circular principle in today´s batteries recycling is passing the batteries waste from company to company if the latter pays a minimal surplus of money to take the used batteries, until it eventually realizes that there is no use for it with current technologies.”


Sustainable methods for cobalt recovery

Research on Li-ion batteries in lab.
Jędrzej Piątek determining the amount of cobalt recovered from a lithium-ion battery at the Department of Materials and Environmental Chemistry, Stockholm University.

The group of researchers is active in developing sustainable methods for cobalt recovery and creating new materials, such as catalysts, from Li-ion batteries waste. The current article envisions a sustainable recycling process, which is operating on the principles of green chemistry and can provide full recovery of critical raw materials, such as cobalt, in a high purity grade in a safe process at room temperature using renewables resources. This allows the chemist to collaborate with nature to achieve green chemical processes for Li-ion batteries recycling.

“The positive feedback that we received on our approach for sustainable recycling both from the scientific community and industry interest reflects the research and education activities of Stockholm University”, says Tetyana Budnyak.


New master´s programme in sustainable chemistry

Within this respect, Stockholm University has launched a new master´s programme in sustainable chemistry, which will start in Autumn 2021. This is the first complete education program in this direction in Europe. In this program, Mika Sipponen will teach a course on renewable materials and Adam Slabon will integrate the present study in his course on chemistry of sustainable recycling.
“Together with the newly-established centre for sustainable systems (SUCCeSS) and this new master´s programme, Stockholm University has set its course toward a sustainable future for society and humanity,“ says Adam Slabon.

J. Piątek, S. Afyon, T.M. Budnyak, S. Budnyk, M.H. Sipponen, A. Slabon "Sustainable Li-ion Batteries: Chemistry and Recycling",  Adv. Energ. Mater. 2021 accepted

The work has been financially supported by Stiftelsen Olle Engkvists Byggmästare.