An applied analysis of the recyclability of electric vehicle battery packs
Current lithium-ion battery (LiB) recycling infrastructure is limited for strategic metals such as lithium and cobalt, despite projections that millions of electric vehicles (EVs) will hit the road in the next decade. Governments have labeled lithium and cobalt as “strategic” due to their importance in emerging green technologies as well as “critical” due to the increased risk of supply disruption resulting from geographic supply concentration, low substitutability, and low end-of-life recycling rates (EOL-RR’s). This paper aims to assist stakeholders conceptualize EV battery packs as a source of strategic metals and to help improve EOL-RR’s for lithium and cobalt. Specifically, this paper demonstrates the value of EV battery packs as a source of metals compared to natural resources and outlines advantages and disadvantages of thermal and mechanical recycling processes in terms of energy consumption, variable costs and maximum recoverable metal value. Findings suggest that EV battery packs contain favorable concentrations – often 1 magnitude higher – of lithium, cobalt, nickel and copper compared to respective economic ores. Disassembling the EV battery pack to the cell level increases cobalt, lithium and nickel concentrations since they are part of the cathode active material. Between thermal and mechanical recycling processes, the key tradeoff is between process time and ability to recover lithium. Thermal recycling requires less processing time than mechanical recycling, resulting in lower variable costs per battery pack, but mechanical recycling yields a higher maximum recoverable metal value since lithium can be recovered along with cobalt, copper and nickel.