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Lithium-Ion Batteries Help Power Civilizations, But How Can They Be Recycled?


More and more, civilization runs on lithium-ion batteries - tiny ones in our phones, huge ones in our electric cars. But when those batteries break or wear out, they mostly get thrown away. Now scientists are trying to figure out how to recycle them. NPR's Dan Charles has the story.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: To understand why lithium-ion batteries are so hard to recycle, let's take a look at how they're put together with Linda Gaines, a scientist at Argonne National Laboratory outside of Chicago.

LINDA GAINES: Each cell is a series of sandwiches.

CHARLES: The outer layers of the sandwich are metal foil. Inside them are thin layers of powder. One of them is the really valuable one, made of things like lithium and cobalt and nickel.

GAINES: And these sandwiches are either rolled up or folded up into a tight package, and then the electrolyte liquid is forced in. And the whole thing is put in a little can.

CHARLES: That's an individual cell. Dozens or even hundreds of cells get stacked together into modules, and a bunch of modules go into the battery pack of a car. This whole sealed assembly is almost impossible to take apart, which would be risky anyway. Remember those stories of batteries catching fire.

GAINES: It is a high-voltage device, and you would not want to be poking around in it with your screwdriver.

CHARLES: When they stop working, though, it's wasteful and dangerous to just throw them in the trash. A few lithium-ion batteries go into a crude kind of recycling. They get chopped up and go into a furnace. The nickel and cobalt survive, but almost everything else gets burned away, including the lithium and aluminum.

GAINES: I kind of find that offensive (laughter). You know, you've spent all that energy to make this really neat material, and you're just burning it as a fuel.

CHARLES: So all over the world, teams of researchers are trying to invent something better to handle the big lithium-ion batteries that may power hundreds of millions of climate-saving electric cars down the road. Here's Gavin Harper from the University of Birmingham in England.

GAVIN HARPER: We need to really make sure that we don't create a waste management problem with electric vehicles, where mountains of batteries accumulate, and we don't know what to do with them.

CHARLES: Harper and his colleagues are building robots, which they hope can take over the dangerous job of cutting batteries open and collecting what's inside. In the U.S., a whole group of labs, including Linda Gaines' group at Argonne, is trying to figure out if you just chop up the batteries, can you find a way to filter that mess and recover the valuable stuff - the metals and the high-priced powder at the heart of the battery? Gaines admits it'll be difficult.

GAINES: If it was easy, it wouldn't be interesting.

CHARLES: And you could kind of imagine it working.

GAINES: Yeah, I can.

CHARLES: They have a goal. Within three years, they want to have a process in hand for recycling lithium-ion batteries; one that companies will use because it's profitable.

Dan Charles, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dan Charles is NPR's food and agriculture correspondent.
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