Environmental concerns of metals in Li-ion batteries - Implications for recycling
This literature study provides an overview of the current knowledge of environmental concerns from the use of metals in LIBs, with the purpose to identify what elements are most important to recycle from an environmental and resource perspective. Impacts are assessed along the life cycle of batteries.
A combined evaluation of criticality studies, supply and demand prognoses, and LCA studies point out the potential future supply risk of lithium. In order to meet future Li demands, largely driven by an expected rapid growth of EV production, Li production capacity must increase and the limited reserves implies recycling of Li must increase in a medium (decadal) time perspective. Li is currently not recycled to any significant extent as there is little commercial value of lithium species resulting from current recycling practices.
Cobalt is identified as a critical element. Total Co resources and reserves are limited and a large part of total Co demand is projected to come from batteries. Recycling processes for Co are however in commercial use.
The production of batteries and especially the manufacturing of active material matrices are generally pointed out as high contributor to environmental impact in battery life cycles. In LCAs of EVs LIB production contributes significantly to the total impact per km accounting both for WTW and equipment life cycle of the vehicle. Assumptions about electricity production as well as recycling scenario has a large impact on results regarding the overall performance of the EV per km.
The refinement of elements including Li to active anode and cathode material is energy intensive and expensive. Hence, energy savings and corresponding avoided environmental burden significantly depend on in what form and at what stage the recycled metal products are fed back in the production of new batteries.
Assessment of impact factors for extraction and emission of elements from LCIA methods combined with average elemental composition of LIBs indicate that high potential impact from emissions of Mn and Cu. This suggests that efforts to avoid Mn and Cu emissions from end-of-life processes including recycling should be prioritized.
The rapid development of LIB technology makes it difficult to assess. Recycling technologies are also under development. Much ongoing development of technologies, policies and markets, scarce and often inconclusive data makes it difficult to predict the future.
The study has been conducted within the project Recycling of metals from spent Li-ion batteries (LIBs) running 2014-2016 and funded by the Swedish Energy Agency (Energimyndigheten).
life cycle assessment