Berkeley National Lab Unveils Easier, Less Expensive Battery Recycling Method
Scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have revealed a new battery material, which they call the Quick-Release Binder, to make battery recycling easier and more affordable.
While lithium-ion battery use is expected to grow elevenfold from 2020 to 2030, materials in these batteries, like lithium, cobalt and nickel, are in increasingly limited supply, making them more and more expensive. Mining for these materials requires a lot of energy and water, and many mining operations involve unsafe, unethical working conditions, as reported by Nature.
As such, it is important to recycle the battery components as much as possible, but battery recycling can be challenging, too, as one November 2021 study found. It’s difficult to create recycling processes for batteries, which have designs that are often changing. Batteries include several components that need to be separated for recycling, and scaling up battery recycling processes is often expensive.
So scientists at the Berkeley Lab invented the Quick-Release Binder, which makes battery disassembly and part separation easier.
“We’re getting to the point that recycling batteries will be a requirement,” Gao Liu, project leader and a senior scientist in Berkeley Lab’s Energy Technologies Area, said in a statement. “If we don’t stop burning them and throwing them in the trash, we will run out of resources in the next ten years. It’s just impossible to keep up with the number of batteries the market is demanding otherwise. There’s just not enough cobalt, not enough nickel — we have to recycle.”
The Quick-Release Binder is made with two polymers, polyacrylic acid (PAA) and polyethylenimine (PEI) joined by negatively charged oxygen atoms in PAA and positively charged nitrogen atoms in PEI.
Batteries made with the Quick-Release Binder can be opened, placed in alkaline water with sodium hydroxide and shaken gently. The sodium ion breaks apart the polymers, which dissolve and free the electrode components inside. Separated elements can be filtered out from the water to dry.
Comparatively, current lithium-ion battery recycling methods involve shredding, grinding and burning the materials to retrieve the metals for recycling. The updated method is easier, cheaper and better for the planet.
“The binder has a great feature that it can be ‘un-zipped’ with low-cost, environmentally benign processing, which benefits us all by improving the economic and environmental sustainability of advanced battery systems,” said Steve Sloop, founder of OnTo Technologies and project collaborator. “It’s also a great achievement that the batteries contain no perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — the family of compounds used to make non-stick coating and many other products, but it’s extraordinarily important for the future. Customers don’t want them due the emerging link with health issues, and I think soon regulators will agree that we can’t keep using these chemicals.”
Berkeley Lab will continue testing its new battery recycling methods to eventually commercialize the process, which the researchers expect to work for batteries of all sizes. They hope to license Quick-Release Binder to major battery manufacturers.
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