The lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery has been thrust into the
limelight in recent years.
Driven most recently by the growing popularity of electric
vehicles (EVs), its usage has risen sharply, pushing up demand
for its constituent minerals and metals.
This phenomenon is perhaps best illustrated by the rocketing
price of lithium, the mineral that lends its name to the
battery category, and a market caught off guard by the sudden
growth in demand, with supply struggling to keep pace.
On the China spot market the price of lithium carbonate rose
from $7.7/kg in June 2015 to a peak of $26.8/kg in June 2016.
In the rest of the world, meanwhile, contract prices for 2017
have doubled from 2016 levels, according to
IM’s market assessments.
Experts now speak of the need for another full project to
come online each year for the next few years in order to
satisfy the growing demand.
The current supply tightness has led some in the industry to
ask – why not recycle lithium from Li-ion batteries
and reuse it?
The answer is simple. For now at least, the quantities and
processes involved make this uneconomical.
The core of the issue is the relatively small proportion of
the cost of the battery which lithium makes up.
"The price of lithium would have to go way up before it
seriously impacted the cost of the battery," Linda Gaines,
transportation system analyst at the Argonne National
Laboratory in Illinois, US told IM.
While materials make up the largest part of the cost of the
battery and the cathode accounts for the majority of
materials cost, the part of this attributable to lithium is
The cost of other cathode materials, such as cobalt, is more
of a worry to cathode producers than the cost of lithium. For
cobalt in particular, cathode makers are seeking alternative
raw material options driven partly by its cost, said
But this is not the case for lithium.
On top of this, primary production of lithium is not energy
intensive, Gaines explained, particularly for lithium
production from brines, where solar evaporation is used to
extract the mineral from salt flats.
"[The process] is not energy intensive and it’s
not expensive. Lithium carbonate is not an expensive material,"
As a result, the expense of separating out a small quantity
of lithium from recycled batteries, while possible in some
situations, is not justified by the value of what can be
"It may not pay to get lithium back," said Gaines.
Pyrometallurgy and hydrometallurgy
There are two methods of recycling Li-ion batteries
– pyrometallurgical and hydrometallurgical processing.
The former involves putting batteries in a furnace and treating
them thermally, while the latter involves treating them
chemically to separate the materials.
The only large scale Li-ion recycling facility currently in
operation is Umicore’s plant in Hoboken, Belgium,
where the company employs both methods to break down
According to Umicore, it uses a form of pyrometallurgy,
employing its own ultra-high temperature (UHT) technology, to
separate batteries into three parts: an alloy (containing the
valuable metals – cobalt, nickel and copper); a slag
fraction, which can be used in the construction industry; and
The alloy can be further broken down using hydrometallurgy,
while the slag element has the potential for lithium
Full hydrometallurgical processing involves chopping up the
battery to recover aluminium and copper foils, as well as a
black mass of active materials, before screening out big pieces
of metal – the foils that had held the anode and
At this point, lithium ions dissolve out into a solution and
metal oxides and carbon (graphite) are filtered out.
The graphite is usually then burned off in the
pyrometallurgical recovery of the metal oxides. It is in
theory possible to recover the graphite, if instead the
metals were recovered as salts. However, this is not
currently a method employed by any company as graphite is not
in short supply at present.
Primary lithium batteries
While lithium extraction from Li-ion remains problematic, it
is possible to extract it from primary lithium batteries.
One company that does this is Retriev Technologies, which
operates a facility in Ohio, US.
Retriev makes use of a proprietary cryogenic process to
treat the highly reactive batteries, before crushing them into
metal solids and a "lithium-enriched solution". The lithium
sulphate in the solution is then converted to lithium
Cost makes this process unfeasible for Li-ion, however.
"The filtrate solution from processing primary lithium
batteries can be used to create lithium carbonate, but the
recyclers don’t generally do this with lithium-ion
because it’s just too expensive.
There’s less lithium per battery," said
The world is becoming more reliant on the mineral to power
the growing use of Li-ion technology.
But given that the recent lithium price spike did not
justify recycling of Li-ion, unless technology makes the cost
of the process significantly lower, it is unlikely to become
large scale in the near future.
*Conversions made January 2017.
Chinese institute sells high value lithium extraction
Dongtai Jinaier Lithium Resource Co. and Qinghai Lithium
Industry Co. have bought a technology patent for the extraction
of lithium in high magnesium-lithium ratio salt lakes for
Chinese renminbi (Rmb) 40m ($5.79m), marking the highest sale
record for a single patent in China’s Qinghai
The patent was developed by the Qinghai Salt Lake Institute
of Chinese Academy of Sciences, after a decade of trying to
commercialise the extraction technology.
It is hoped the technology will set the base for
Qinghai’s lithium targets. The province aims to
develop a lithium industry worth Rmb 100bn in production
Zhijian Wu, vice director of the institute, said the
organisation is investigating salt lake resources in China,
and is also researching materials including potash, high
purity chloride lithium, super fine hydroxide magnesium fire
retardants, magnesium and rare earth alloys, and lithium
energy storage materials, all based on salt lake related