It is hard to imagine a life without lithium ion batteries in modern times, specially in urban settings. Through their pervasive presence, these batteries are powering universal, smart connectivity (and more recently, mobility) in a safer, performance packed and cost effective manner. Quite fittingly, the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to three scientists for the development of lithium ion batteries has also acknowledged these modern day powerhouses.
As is common with many products, the design, development, manufacturing and usage of lithium ion batteries is often discussed but not really the end-of-life scenarios. When viewed in the context of an extremely steep rise in the turnover of some devices which use lithium ion batteries like smartphones, the demand for material resources has become very high. More specifically(1), there are issues of primary mining, price fluctuations, material scarcity, availability & access and the geographical imbalance in the spread of materials which play major factors.
All these only mean that urban spaces need to be looked at as an important source of these materials in order to reduce the burden on virgin mining. Additionally, there is also a question of the inability to reduce all disposed materials to landfills (Hazardous nature, lack of space and so on). Hence, urban mining needs to be looked at as a great opportunity to sustainably grow our economy, And, the scale is already present ! I was part of a great group which undertook a study on Urban Mining as part of our mid term workshop at the Takshashila Institution’s Technology Policy Course, and we came up with the following market sizing (all in ₹ ):
This becomes particularly interesting for certain applications of lithium ion batteries like electric vehicles, where there is an additional consideration of second life of these batteries (in applications like energy storage systems). Nevertheless, a lot of smartphones get disposed within as less as 2 years time and they present a potentially rich source of lithium and other important materials. In fact, there is a popular belief that all the disposed lithium ion batteries from smartphones in India are sufficient enough to make all the lithium ion batteries for electric vehicles.
For lithium ion batteries, the supply chain considerations (for lithium and cobalt) are even more acute from a geographical and Energy Stored over Energy Invested (ESOI) perspective (2). Consider this, it takes 250 tons of the ore Spodumene or 750 tons of Brine along with 1800 tons of water consumed to produce one ton of lithium through virgin mining whereas the same ton could be extracted from 28 tons of used lithium ion batteries (around 250 electric cars worth) .
Additionally, recycling is becoming a necessity from a social consciousness and a compliance perspective as well. The Indian Government(3), as are many other national governments are dangling both carrot and stick with tax sops to recycling companies and liabilities to producers under Extended Producer Responsibility Rules. Hence, Battery recycling is going to be an interesting industry segment to watch out for.
However, this is not without challenges. We foresee three of these particularly for the Electric Vehicle Industry, namely:
- The setting up of facilities to recycle batteries is a complex proposition. On first glance, it has to have a high degree of automation to negate health hazards involved in manual labor. Disassembly is also a more complex problem to tackle than is assembly.
- Though smartphones are plentiful, it is difficult to source a lot of used electric vehicle lithium ion batteries due to their long and multiple usage cycles. Economies of scale are hence a wicked problem when viewed in the context of the above automation requirement.
- Thirdly, there is the question of standardization(4) of batteries. There is a myriad of combinations available out of the different kinds of cells (cylindrical, prismatic and pouch), the electronics inside, the casing itself (aluminium, steel and plastic) and it is hard to account for all these variables.
Nevertheless, we are seeing a lot of ideas, technologies and investments coming up in this “Kabadiwala” space of our business. At Ather, we are always keen to interact with folks from every aspect of the Electric Vehicle and the larger Energy space. Do give us a shout out on any conversations on Lithium Ion Battery Recycling !.
- “Potential and relevance of urban mining in the context of sustainable cities”, IIMB Management Review”, 2017
- Harper, G., Sommerville, R., Kendrick, E. et al. Recycling lithium-ion batteries from electric vehicles. Nature575, 75–86 (2019)
- Electric vehicles’ lithium-battery policy to incentivise recycling entities , Economic Times, October 9, 2019
- Achim Kampker et al. Evaluation of a Remanufacturing for Lithium Ion Batteries from Electric Cars. World Academy of Science, Engineering and Technology, International Journal of Mechanical and Mechatronics Engineering