Does Recycling Lithium-ion Batteries Help The Environment?

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Over the past few decades, the need for renewable energy is increasingly rising for enabling sustainable development of human civilization. What if all fossil fuels like petrol, diesel and natural gas get exhausted? Does the world stand a chance to find a replacement in the form of sustainable battery technology? Hydro electricity, wind, and sunlight are some renewable sources that provide energy for various human activities, but they all have their own limitations. They all are intermittent in nature and need power to be stored in battery backups. So, the world needs to find a replacement in the form of sustainable battery technology.

The need for sustainable battery technology is gaining prominence worldwide. According to Allied Market Research, the global lithium-ion battery market was valued at $30.2 billion in 2017 and is projected to reach $100.4 billion by 2025, growing at a CAGR of 17.1% from 2018 to 2025. Today, the market is abundant with a host of batteries that are mainly used for electric vehicles, transport, backup energy source, storage, gadgets, and others. Like telecommunication and internet, batteries, too, have become a part of human life. The question is if all batteries are equally good to use and hold eco-friendly future for this planet or not. The answer lies in understanding the important ones, if not all.

Basically, batteries are, at first, classified into two sections, primary and secondary. The former type is non-rechargeable and the later type is rechargeable and needs a routine of maintenance. However, today, rechargeable batteries are in much demand. Some of the popular secondary batteries are:

Nickel-Metallhydride-Battery

SMF (sealed maintenance free) Battery – SMF is widely used for USP so that data and information can be saved before the full shutdown of the systems. It is a sealed rechargeable battery with a very low maintenance cost.

Nickel Cadmium Battery – These batteries are relatively stronger than SMF batteries and hold more power during emergency situations. Nickel Cadmium batteries can be recharged numerous times during their usage.

Lead Acid Battery

Nickel–zinc battery
Lead acid batteries are mainly tubular in shape. It works on a positive and negative plate system. The electrolyte is a mixture of sulphuric acid and water. Its maintenance and recharging can be carried out by refilling water and sulphuric acid. These batteries are used in open as well as close ambiance and are widely used in the automobile sector. For residential purposes, this battery is best for backups due to its low cost and low maintenance. however, the lead-acid battery is the most environmentally harmful energy storage device since it contains toxic elements.

Lithium-ion Battery – Lithium-ion battery (LiB) is a great portable power source. It stands out tall from other secondary batteries since it is strong, rechargeable and its self-discharge capacity is low. Due to this fact, it is widely used in smartphones, tablets, and laptops so that the overall battery can last longer. Although it is great in its sphere, it exhibits both-merits and demerits.

Li_ion_laptop_battery

Merits of LiB

Since they are used in gadgets like smartphones, mobile phones, tablets, etc. they are lightweight and do not create hurdles during mobility. They are available in different shapes. For example, from a 21’’ laptop battery to a 5’’ smartphone battery to a 5cm smartwatch.

They can be recharged from any point. Total discharge is not needed like other batteries.
In terms of self-discharge, they are the best. On an average, they lose around 5% in a month as compared to 20% of Nickel Cadmium batteries. Because of this feature, nowadays smart gadgets can do multiple activities at a time such as browsing, video watching, playing games, etc. without heating up or losing power.

Demerits of LiB

Since the LiB consists of cathode, anode, and electrolyte, the deposits over these elements begin to hinder the flow of charge. As a result, it changes the internal resistance and the overall capacity of the battery gets affected. Low current or gradual decline becomes evident. The battery capacity debilitates automatically after some time, since continuous charging and high temperature affects its output. Gadgets using LiB are likely to suffer from the thermal run in case of overheating.

Are Lithium-ion Batteries Eco-friendly?

Among all secondary battery choices, undoubtedly lithium-ion batteries are the best possible fit for green power sources. For the time being at least, they make for a sustainable portable energy source. However, are lithium-ion batteries completely eco friendly? Let’s find out.

The lithium metal is extracted from a specific geographical triangle located in South America. In 2016, approximately 12,000 tons of lithium was procured from that territory located in the deserts of Chile, Argentina and Bolivia. Another country that contributes the most is Australia, which exported it to other countries to be transformed into a battery. Excessive digging of lithium hard rocks leaves noticeable CO2 footprints on global warming. Be it for any metal, mining is not a sustainable business.

Recycling Lithium-ion Batteries

Less than 5%of lithium-ion batteries are recycled every year. From a futuristic point of view, what happens to those billions of lithium-ion batteries that are being used today? They end up being disposed off in garbage dumps, which does not really make it sustainable. Instead of taking such batteries as waste and increasing waste management complexities, a better idea could be open up recycle opportunities for energy-sector firms. Umicore, a Belgian mining firm, has shown a positive approach towards recycling of lithium-ion batteries and it plans on taking up this work to a higher level by improving their overall functional capacity. This is possible if and only if pricing is reasonable–otherwise there would be no market for recycled lithium-ion batteries that are costlier than a set of new pair.

Earlier, mining new lithium was more affordable than recycling unused or dumped batteries. It is an open fact the lithium recycling process, be it of any commodity, takes much time and utilizes a great length of resources. Nevertheless, advanced technologies like robotic process automation, artificial intelligence, and nanoengineering may provide disrupting breakthroughs. Every lithium-ion battery consists of one microstructure. If e-waste recyclers can preserve that, then its recycling may not be complex and expensive. If great breakthroughs occur in recycling, then the economy of lithium-ion batteries will become feasible and have minimal impact on the environment.

Bio: Zahid Ahmed is a writer and blogger. He holds a bachelor’s degree in economics. He has an avid interest in blogging and content experimentation for a variety of topics, including big data. Image source – GIT Laboratory Journal

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