Plugged In Blog

Benefits of the Battery Recycling Chain

05.10.22

Batteries have long been important to how people interact with energy in their daily lives: from their personal electronics to toys for their kids to their vehicles (electric or gasoline powered). Despite their importance and ubiquity, most people rarely stop to really consider what batteries are enabling on a fundamental level or why they are so transformative. When electricity is generated, it’s sent across the grid and once it reaches its end destination it is consumed immediately. Electricity is entirely made of moving electrons, so for the most part, this transfer happens instantaneously or the power can’t be used. But battery technologies take away the urgency and allows users to take energy to be used where and when it’s needed.

Over the years, the cost, efficiency, and even sizes of batteries have evolved, but so too have the key end uses. Today, advanced battery technologies are enabling:

  • Electric vehicles (EVs) to transform transportation
  • Solar generation that allows households and businesses to be less reliant on the grid
  • Utilities to build more large-scale renewable energy assets that can charge batteries when intermittent energy resources are abundant and then only deploying them to the grid when they’re most needed.

But as batteries become more popular and more advanced, some key considerations are coming into focus, notably core metals and materials that make up batteries (including lithium, graphite, cobalt, manganese, and others) and their relative cost, geological sourcing, and sustainability of procurement.

In many ways, the battery sector is thriving amid the goal of ensuring that they present an environmentally beneficial solution. Thus, a key area of focus for leading battery manufacturers is optimizing and investing in the battery recycling chain.

Key Battery Characteristics

The most common type of battery today for the aforementioned use cases is lithium-ion (LI), and this technology is likely to remain the dominant battery type for some considerable time. LI batteries are a common solution because:

 The average LI battery is composed of the following materials, by proportion of weight:

  • Graphite (16%)
  • Aluminum (15%)
  • Copper (10%)
  • Cobalt (7%)
  • Manganese (5%)
  • Lithium (7%)
  • Nickel (4%)
  • Other Materials (36%)

This material breakdown is notable because many of these materials are difficult to source affordably and sustainably. Many of these critical materials come from geographically limited locations, which can create supply chain challenges. For example, the United States gets 91% of its imports of lithium from Argentina and China alone, while the Democratic Republic of Congo provides 70% of the world’s entire Cobalt supply. Being reliant on these sources of material production is a challenge for the battery industry because a single government may make decisions that interrupt global supply chains, while the ethical concerns about how some of these materials are mined in other nations can cause challenges as well. These issues highlight the need to get the most mileage out of the materials once they are in the battery supply chain to maximize their use and dampen the demand for new, virgin material extraction.

Extending the Lifetime of Lithium-Ion Batteries

The first step that battery producers like Joule Case must take to ensure sustainability of the battery supply chain is simply to encourage the proper care of LI batteries to allow for maximize lifetime of the technologies. The more use that can be achieved from a single battery, the more the impact and cost of the battery is spread out on a per kilowatthour or per charge basis, which improves the lifetime sustainability and economics of the batteries.

To start, proper care of a lithium-ion battery includes best practices like keeping batteries out of extreme temperatures (either hot or cold), ensuring somewhat regular charge and discharge, avoiding mechanical damage, storing them in environments that aren’t too high in moisture, and minimize the amount of time the batteries spend at either 0% or 100% charge. Several of these outcomes can be achieved by utilizing battery management systems that can monitor the use and maintenance to ensure lifetimes are extended as long as possible.

In particular, Joule Case has had many successes in not only extending the lifetime of our batteries beyond the typical number of cycles, but we do so in a way that ensures the best possible retainment of peak performance for as long as possible (and this is an area we’re constantly doing more work in, so be on the lookout for additional exciting Joule Case technologies to extend life).

End of Life Considerations for Lithium-Ion Batteries

That said, even with optimal use and care practices, lithium-ion batteries will still reach their end of life eventually. Keeping in mind some of the sourcing challenges of the component materials of LI batteries, maximizing the use of the batteries before the inevitable end is a key consideration. With that in mind, our goal at Joule Case is to keep batteries out of the landfill. If you think back to Middle School lessons on environmental conservation, phrase ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ is actually meant to be an order of operations. To reduce battery material use, we want to minimize the volume of new materials necessary for the battery market, which is done by reducing how many batteries must be manufactured over time. In extending the lifetime of LI batteries as previously discussed, that’s how we highlight ‘Reduce.’

But the next consideration is ‘Reuse.’ Joule Case is committed to maximizing the reuse of batteries, so much so that we will buy your battery back at any time to ensure we’re able to put it to the best possible use.

Oftentimes, battery users will notice a battery fall below its normal operating levels, perhaps advancing in its life enough that it has naturally lost its ability to hold a full charge, for example. However, such a battery can still hold some charge and thus batteries later in life like this can still be useful in aggregate. Especially when considering the unique offering of Joule Case batteries in how they are constructed to be added on top of each other to create a larger system, we can make great use of these ‘used’ batteries. So, we instruct our customers to not throw their batteries away or dispose them, and instead give us the opportunity to extend their life through ‘Reuse.’

For example, Joule Case batteries have been utilized in aggregate to help respond to disaster relief sites where mobile, dispatchable power not tied to the grid is necessary for recovery efforts, including on the ground in Puerto Rico, with the humanitarian organization World Concern. In fact, these on the ground applications of reused Joule Case batteries have enabled not just second life of batteries and their materials but even third life in some cases!

Recycling Battery Components

Going back to the Middle School on conservation, the final step once ‘reduce’ and ‘reuse’ can no longer be used, the last resort is ‘recycle.’ Recycling costs energy which comes with its own environmental impact, which is why it’s lower in the priority list than reduce and reuse, but recycling remains a critical component of the battery lifecycle. Proper recycling of batteries helps ensure products and their materials avoid needlessly filling up landfills, but it also makes sure that even if the battery itself isn’t usable that the precious metals making them up can be extracted and reused where possible.

Recycling battery components is critical to creating the circular economy of batteries, by reusing cobalt from a dead battery in a new battery, for example, that minimizes the amount of virgin cobalt that then needs to be mined for the next generation of battery manufacturing. Making the best of use of this material is the sustainable, and oftentimes economical, decision.

A great example of such battery recycling efforts comes from Redwood Materials, a company co-founded by a Tesla co-founder who saw firsthand the immense importance of recycling EV batteries. Now casting a wider net and working to recycle all battery and electronics waste, Redwood Materials is a key player in recycling for grid and renewable storage assets and collaborates with project developers and utilities on recycling solutions. By incorporating these considerations at the point of battery production, rather than an after-the-fact engagement once the end-of-life batteries are in hand, their practices of embracing the circular economy of batteries truly represents the future. From lithium to nickel to copper to cobalt and more, recycling and optimizing the circular life of these materials is essential to the sustainability of the battery recycling chain.

Joule Case’s Commitment

At Joule Case, these battery recycling considerations are core to our focus. In sourcing batteries for over five years, many considerations can be made on the front end to extend the life and make for easier recycling. Joule Case considers the entire lifecycle when sourcing batteries on the front end, and we see replacing generators as just the beginning of creating a true circular economy.

Like most battery companies, most of our lithium comes from South America and is chemically processed in China. We are always working to make this better and have been working with KORE Power, Albemarle, and Controlled Thermal Resources to bring our lithium production to the United States and improve on any manufacturing environmental effects. But just as important as extraction is recycling. We are very excited about the work companies such as Redwood Recycling and Li-Cycle are doing to create the circular economy. Transitioning away from fossil fuels to a circular battery economy will require many partners and the momentum is just getting started.

Recycling lithium batteries for phones and laptops proves to be a challenge, but with solar battery generators such as Joule Case, our larger sizes are big enough to use the lead acid recycling programs that already exist as inspiration, and we are excited to be a leader on this new frontier.

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