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What Materials are Recovered From the Recycling Process?

What Materials are Recovered From the Recycling Process?
A cutting with the recycling symbol, next to a bunch of batteries covered in green, representing battery recycling.

The recycling process enables the utilization of secondary raw materials derived from waste, which can be reintegrated into the production cycle of batteries or repurposed for manufacturing other goods.

In previous content, a review of the current recycling processes used in Europe was presented.

Now, we will focus on the different materials that can be recovered from a recycled battery. After a successful recycling process, the raw materials are ready to be reintroduced into the economy.

This article will show the essential materials that are recovered when a battery is recycled.

Materials Recovered from Battery Recycling

Every recycled battery offers a wide variety of materials that can be recycled – at least in theory.

However, in practice, the real potential of recovered materials through recycling has not been fully exploited yet. Accordingly, recycling regulations also consider it by suggesting a recovery objective of about 50% for lithium batteries. This recovery objective is likely a guideline or requirement set by regulatory bodies or government agencies responsible for overseeing recycling practices. Different countries or regions may have their own specific regulations and targets for recycling batteries.

As a general industry standard, recycling companies only list the main materials that are currently recovered.

A battery with a green cover and a text that says "green energy" algonside the recycling icon. A recycled battery. Australian Solar Quotes (2023)

Thanks to research carried out by the National University of Australia, which examined data reported by eight global battery recycling facilities using different processes, it became clear that all the investigated companies recovered the precious elements (copper, cobalt, and nickel).

Other metals, such as steel (iron) and aluminum, were commonly recovered due to several factors (magnetic properties, density differences, material composition, etc.). Iron alloys are considered low value compared to precious metals like copper, cobalt, and nickel. However, they are quickly recovered during battery recycling processes, which can make them a profitable alternative.

Aluminum is recovered due to the significant demand for recycled aluminum, and there are expectations of broader implementation for the recovery of nickel. Most companies recover plastic, except those that use pyrometallurgical processes in which plastic is burned, and it was not found that other materials, such as lithium, manganese, and carbon, were recovered entirely.

A battery with a tag indicating "Li-ion" as for lithium-ion and the recycling sign. Lithium-ion battery. Freeble Photography (n.d.)

The National University of Australia and other studies also took a closer look at the recycling processes themselves and found that:

  • the flexible nature of the pyrometallurgical process allows for the recycling a wide range of battery chemicals, however, once already recovered, they cannot be easily separated without undergoing a refining process
  • hydrometallurgical processes are more specific depending on the type of battery and, therefore, can recover a more significant amount of materials, especially lithium
  • hydro-pyro combinations allow the recovery of a broader range of materials with greater efficiency but are more expensive and more intensive in emissions.

With these studies, it was possible to demonstrate that the mechanical & physical processes recover the most significant materials, although only in pilot projects.

A drawing of a battery being covered in foliage and leaves. Image representing a battery. EsMap (2020)

Conclusion

After the second-life applications have been fully explored and exhausted, recycling emerges as the favored and sustainable choice. Following a successful battery recycling process, the resultant raw materials are poised for reintegration into the economic cycle. Materials such as iron, aluminum, copper, cobalt, nickel, and others that have been recovered can be harnessed to create brand-new products. Given the ongoing expansion of the global electric vehicle (EV) market, it’s highly probable that the materials from recycled batteries will find their way back into the production of new lithium-ion batteries, thus perpetuating the cycle of sustainability.

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