Question: Can lithium-ion batteries be recycled?
Right now, Australia lags behind the rest of the world in battery recycling, with only 3 per cent - predominantly lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) - returned for reprocessing nationally.
Recycling such materials onshore could augment the federal government's Critical Minerals Strategy, formally launched last month. That strategy, while strongly focused on raw materials and supply chains, acknowledges the impact of innovation in processing to recover not only primary metals but also a range of by-products.
Battery recycling relies on innovations of this type for the sustainable and ethical supply of materials back into the battery-production cycle. The environment also benefits enormously since, aside from housing critical elements in high concentrations, batteries contain toxic electrolytes that should never be relegated to landfill.
But with so few LIBs entering the recycling chain, can the critical materials they contain be retrieved effectively enough to provide both commercial and environmental benefits?
Lithium Australia firmly believes so and has been reviewing current battery recycling practices. These involve shredding spent batteries, separating the metal oxide powders and treating them in a furnace prior to dissolving and chemically fractionating the metals.
In light of its research, Lithium Australia has concluded that, from a sustainability point of view, current battery recycling is far from optimal - only the base metals (nickel, cobalt, manganese and copper) are extracted, while the lithium is discharged as slag or flue gas, never to be recovered.
Lithium Australia is therefore developing a hydrometallurgical technique that recovers all metals, including lithium, from spent LIBs. The R&D involved is being undertaken in conjunction with Murdoch University, with a final flowsheet to be pilot-tested in the near future.
Further, Lithium Australia has invested in Envirostream Australia P/L, a leader in the recovery of metal powders from LIBs. This investment will help double the capacity of Envirostream's Victorian-based battery-shredding facility and provide Lithium Australia with access to feed material as it advances its plans to commercialise critical materials from spent batteries.
Given the CSIRO's April 2019 forecast that the amount of discarded LIBs in Australia will grow from the 3300 tonnes recorded in 2016 to between 100,000 and 188,000 tonnes by 2036, Lithium Australia believes more efficient recycling of battery waste is imperative.
To address the situation, Lithium Australia and Envirostream will roll out a collection strategy that greatly increases the number of battery disposal locations nationwide, making it more convenient for consumers to participate.
Response by: Adrian Griffin, managing director Lithium Australia
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