The lithium-ion waste problem hiding in your pocket

By Molly Kirkpatrick

6 November 2020

3 minute read

Cables for a range of phones that use lithium-ion batteries and produce waste

Lithium-ion waste isn’t a new problem, but it is a growing concern.

The allure of new technology has created a little talked about waste problem. Lithium-ion batteries power many of our devices yet and globally we aren’t recycling them effectively, if at all. In order to close the loop on battery resources, Australian researchers are looking ahead and creating sustainable technologies.

What generates lithium-ion waste?

Swept up in the euphoria of a new phone, we often forget the impact of our obsession on the environment. The ever increasing demand for technology is placing a strain on raw resources and creating a growing stockpile of e-waste.

Take lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) for instance. LIBs power much of our daily lives. Everything from our mobile phones and handheld tools, to laptop computers and electric vehicles are driven by these powerhouse batteries. Without these modern energy storage devices, the way we stay in contact with friends, work and the world would drastically change.

The number of LIBs in Australia has grown by more than 250 per cent in the last decade, driven largely by an increase in mobile phone usage. Currently, there are three options for LIBs at the end of their life: landfill, burning, or recycling. While they can be recycled, most spent LIBs are either sent to landfill or incinerated. With more than 25 per cent of a LIB made up of heavy metal and five per cent a toxic electrolyte, none of these options are straightforward.

In Australia, most recyclers begin the process by pounding the batteries to dust.  Next, they separate out the large aluminium and copper foils and throw away the plastic. The remaining powder is sent overseas for further processing.

Leading the charge into new battery technology

A team of our researchers, led by Dr Anand Bhatt, is tackling the battery waste problem head-on. They’re developing new processes that will allow us to safely and effectively recycle LIBs right here in Australia.

Before recycling or disposal, it is essential to completely discharge the batteries. Any residual energy stored within the battery presents a huge fire risk. Slight damage to the casing can create sparks and lead to a fire.

Dr Bhatt and his team are developing new discharge technologies which make the transport and storage of LIBs significantly safer, greatly reducing the risk of fire.

“We have developed two different processes depending on the size of the battery,” Dr Bhatt said.

“For small batteries, like those in your mobile phone, we can extract the energy through a wet discharge bath. For larger batteries, like those in an electric vehicle, the discharged energy is fed back into the grid and available for other uses.”

The team is also working on the techniques to recover lithium PF6 (LiPF6), a major component of the LIB electrolyte. The new recycling process allows LiPF6 to be extracted directly and reused easily in the manufacture of new batteries. With no further processing required it saves energy and resources.

While these technologies are still under development, they provide a path forward in the development of sustainable recycling processes for LIBs right here in Australia. Being smarter about how we recover materials could open up a $4 billion on-shore recycling industry in Australia by 2040. By closing the loop on the battery lifecycle, we conserve resources, reduce our impact on the environment and balance our hunger for new tech.

For the full version of this article head on over to our ECOS blog.