A first-of-its-kind bill introduced in the Senate seeks to change lithium-ion batteries disposal process by significantly boosting federal investments in lithium-ion battery recycling. Sponsored by Senator Angus King, an independent from Maine, the “Battery and Critical Mineral Recycling Act of 2020” calls on Congress to dole out $150 million over the next five years to support research on “innovative” battery recycling approaches and to help establish of a national collection system that can harvest the spent batteries gathering dust in our closets. Lithium-ion batteries power everything from smartphones to laptops to electric cars, but with the global appetite for clean energy growing rapidly, experts worry the world could soon face shortages of key battery metals.
The bill is the latest sign that politicians are becoming aware of this reality. It’s also a reminder that unless we figure out how to efficiently mine metals like cobalt and lithium from dead batteries, we’re going to need to mine the earth a lot more. And if we don’t figure out how to recycle lithium-ion batteries — particularly the big ones inside electric vehicles and those used for energy storage in the electric grid — we’ll eventually wind up with mountains of toxic e-waste.
Today, researchers estimate that less than 5 percent of lithium batteries are recycled at the end of their lives. Would-be recyclers face a host of challenges, including collecting enough batteries to make it worthwhile and finding safe, efficient ways to disassemble batteries that come in myriad shapes and sizes (and that often weren’t designed with recycling in mind).
Even if enough dead lithium-ion batteries can be collected to make recycling economical, today’s recycling techniques are rather crude. Recyclers might melt a battery’s metal-rich components down to slag in a furnace, dissolve them in acid to leach specific metals out, or use some combination of the two methods. Currently recycling processes are energy-intensive, produce toxic byproducts, and only recover some of the metals present, like cobalt and nickel. Most of today’s battery recyclers aren’t recovering lithium at all.