A Closer Look: Lithium-Ion Batteries in E-waste

Posted by on May 21, 2019

Many battery types are available today, each with specific characteristics for various applications. For household use, there are rechargeable batteries, such as Lithium-Ion (Li-ion), Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) and Nickel Cadmium (NiCd) and non-rechargeable batteries, such as Alkaline, Zinc-Carbon and Lithium Metal. For industrial applications and vehicles, Lead Acid, MiMH and Li-ion are commonly used.

The battery types most commonly found in e-waste are:

  • Lead-acid, (low cost, relatively large power-to-weight ratio), 
  • Nickel-cadmium (consistent lifetime terminal voltage and good performance at low temperatures), and 
  • Lithium-ion batteries (high energy density, low self-discharge, no memory effect).

Lithium-ion batteries have become more popular over recent years due to their lightweight design, energy density and longevity. They are currently used in most smartphones, laptops and PDAs and are increasingly used in household electronics.

In this article, we will take a closer look at lithium-ion batteries, their future life, and how to dispose of them responsibly.

Why are lithium-ion batteries used in some types of device?

There are two types of lithium batteries, lithium-ion (Li-ion) and lithium metal. The difference: Li-ion batteries are rechargeable (secondary cells) and lithium metal batteries are non-rechargeable (primary cells). Li-ion batteries are reliable with good performance characteristics. They have very low self-discharge and can remain inside (unused) devices for long periods of time without loss of power. Li-ion batteries do not exhibit the ‘memory effect’, which is a common term describing a reduction in a rechargeable battery’s charge. This is, however, a characteristic of certain types of batteries such as nickel-cadmium.  

Lithium batteries are manufactured in cylindrical or prismatic form and are available as direct replacements for common alkaline battery cells, or as battery assemblies for specific high-energy applications.

In which devices do we find this type of battery?

Li-ion batteries can be found in most electronic devices today. They are prevalent in portable electronics such as laptops, tablets, phones and cameras and are increasingly being used in e-mobility applications, for example, electric cars and bicycles. Other applications include military, aerospace and power storage, such as UPS (uninterruptible power supplies) and in domestic and industrial buildings. This is a smart way to reuse high-capacity batteries from electric vehicles by repurposing the battery from an end-of-life vehicle, potentially extending the useful life by 10-15 years.

More recently li-ion batteries are being used to replace mains-driven domestic appliances such as vacuum cleaners and gardening equipment. These markets will also contribute to growth in their use. One leading appliance manufacturer, for example, has announced they are no longer developing mains-driven vacuum cleaners.

What is the forecast for future uptake of li-ion batteries?

Demand for li-ion batteries is growing in comparison to other chemistries in the global market[1]. Declining prices coupled with increasing power density is increasing adoption in consumer electronics, automotive, medical and industrial applications. The li-ion battery market is estimated to grow from $37.4 billion in 2018, to $92.2 billion by 2024, at a CAGR of 16.2 % between 2018 and 2024.[2]

Massive growth is expected in major markets on the demand and supply sides, particularly in Asia. Battery market growth will be underpinned by disruptive technologies such as electric vehicles, smart grid storage and data centers[3]. The number of electric vehicles on the road worldwide is projected to reach 125 million by 2030.[4]

There are, however, some issues that might be a barrier to wider adoption. Li-ion batteries can produce a thermal reaction if mishandled. For example in 2017, batteries in the one of the world’s most popular smartphones experienced severe overheating problems leading to a large-scale recall. There have been reports of electric car batteries combusting following an accident and burning batteries inside electric vehicles cannot be extinguished using a conventional extinguisher. Li-ion batteries can swell, which may not be immediately visible on the outside of a device. Swollen li-ion batteries caused the front of another market-leading smartphone to warp over time.

Around 5 percent of li-ion batteries are recycled worldwide – why so few?

As li-ion batteries contain fewer toxic metals than other types of batteries (such as lead or cadmium) they are often believed to be non-hazardous. However, this does not imply they can be discarded with ‘regular’ waste.

The EU Batteries Directive does not contain provisions for setting strong incentives to promote their recovery. However, in its 2019 revision[5], the commission recommends following more recent guidelines specific to Lithium. Respondents to a recent consultation proposed broadening the Directive’s scope, to deal with safety concerns around lithium batteries.

Unfortunately the recycling of li-ion batteries is currently limited due to its perceived complexity. However recycling lithium could prevent a future shortage and alleviate pressure on demand. Lithium is not a rare metal but ethical questions have been raised about the way in which it is sometimes sourced. 

Li-ion batteries contain various materials that can be recycled, including cathode materials such as cobalt, as well as aluminium, copper, graphite and plastics. As manufacturers strive to reduce the cost of lithium-ion batteries, they can reduce the content of valuable elements, such as cobalt, that make them worth recycling, according to the Electric Power Research Institute.

What should NOT be done with li-ion batteries when they are no longer needed?

These batteries contain a flammable electrolyte that can result in fire or even explosions if they are punctured, damaged, or heated. The high-energy content and active nature of li-ion batteries make it dangerous to dispose of them in regular waste, instead they should be offered for recycling.

Disposing of them in regular waste not only goes against regulations, such as the European WEEE directive, but can also result in dangerous fire hazards and pollution of the environment. 

Modern devices are designed to be slim and lightweight. Batteries are often integrated into their structural design, for example by encapsulating and gluing them in place. This makes separating batteries difficult and adds to the cost of recycling a device. Separate collection is essential, as is separate processing during recycling.

Which regulations and guidelines are already in place or expected?

EU recycling legislation

Directive 2006/66/EC on batteries and accumulators and waste batteries and accumulators aims to harmonise EU member states’ laws on the disposal and recycling of batteries containing dangerous substances. However, this ‘Batteries Directive’ requires legislative action from European Member States.

An evaluation of the Directive, published in April 2019, shows that most Member States have met or exceeded the 2012 target for the collection of waste portable batteries (set at 25 %), but only 14 Member States have met the 2016 target (set at 45 %). The directive is currently under review and it is expected the revised text will contain more content specific to lithium batteries.

The European WEEE Directive requires removal of (embedded, attached or included) batteries from WEEE and separate collection before processing. After the separation from the equipment, the batteries are to be processed in accordance with the Batteries Directive.

Recently, the SAFeRWEEE project was launched in the United Kingdom. This is a collaborative project between waste operators and fire chiefs to improve the handling of li-ion batteries at the end of life in order to avoid fires at recycling sites.

Product design guidelines

The ecodesign directive provides consistent EU-wide rules for improving the environmental performance of products. Ecodesign should allow fast, safe and easy removal. However, current designs tend to focus on functionality and efficient production and recycling is not always adequately taken into account. Enhanced legislation could lead to ‘design ready for recycling’ in future.

U.S. Department of Transportation regulations

Due to the chemical and electrical hazards that reside within lithium-ion batteries, these are classified as a hazardous material under the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT’s) Hazardous Materials Regulations (HMR; 49 C.F.R., Parts 171-180). This requires all shipments of li-ion batteries, whether by a consumer or manufacturer, to follow detailed requirements.

Basel Convention’s Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Waste and Their Disposal

The Basel Convention is still working through classifying lithium-ion batteries and their management. These classifications will affect the development of regulations and legislations around the world regarding management of hazardous wastes, including lithium-ion batteries.

They do currently offer general guidance on safe management of li-ion batteries, and they gather data and collect reports on incidents of concern that occur globally.

What should be done to improve recycling of these batteries?

One important requirement is improved segregation at the source. Li-ion batteries are often discarded in bulk skips as part of larger assemblies or complete products, even though they should be collected separately. The United Nations’ European Agreement Concerning the International Carriage of Dangerous Goods by Road (ADR) treaty stipulates removal should be as easy and safe as possible. If removal is not possible, the assemblies should be transported separately as dangerous goods. It is also important that batteries, where practical, are not built into products in a way that prevents removal. The design of some consumer products does not facilitate simple dismantling, requiring breaching a permanently bonded casing. This adds to the cost of recycling and can increase the risk of physical damage to the battery.  

Please read our guidelines to battery disposal for more important information concerning battery recycling.

If you are looking for professional electronics recycling solutions in multiple countries, contact SRS today.

[1] Source: Research & Markets

[2] Source: Research & Markets

[3] ‘A Strategic Outlook for the Global Lithium-ion Batteries Market to 2028’, conducted by Commodity Inside.  

[4] International Energy Agency

[5] https://ec.europa.eu/commission/sites/beta-political/files/swd-report-batteries-accumulators-april2019_en.pdf

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