A PhD student at the University of Washington, holds a used lithium-ion battery at UW's Clean Energy Institute in Seattle, Feb. 13, 2017.

A PhD student at the University of Washington, holds a used lithium-ion battery at UW's Clean Energy Institute in Seattle, Feb. 13, 2017. Ted S. Warren/AP

Recycle Your Batteries, Before China Wins That Race, Too

With global demand rising for critical and rare earth materials in new tech, it's not too late for the U.S. to secure its own sources.

The advances in energy storage and the advent of the li-ion battery are fueling a new technology revolution – in our consumer products, the automotive industry, energy storage and grid management, and the internet of things. While headlines tout the newest smartphone release or advance in electric vehicle adoption, a race for the materials that power this innovation revolution has been underway for years. And as a country, we’re falling behind.

Cobalt is crucial to modern li-ion battery technology despite efforts to reduce its prevalence. But the cobalt supply chain presents numerous challenges for U.S. companies. As with many other critical minerals, China has established a near-stranglehold on the market, refining an estimated 80 percent of the world’s cobalt chemical products. Further, most cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a weak state in which the mining industry has had difficulty keeping children and other laborers from hazardous “artisanal mining” — i.e., mining and washing the ore by hand. DRC is projected to supply nearly 70 percent of the world’s cobalt for the years to come.

Nickel, another key element in li-ion batteries, is more prevalent in the world. But we can expect supply constraints as high-nickel electric vehicle batteries begin to consume as much of the metal as today’s stainless steel and other applications.

The United States, despite its innovation in the energy, consumer electronics, and advanced mobility sectors, is lagging behind in the race to secure these critical materials. One possible solution is sitting unused in our desk drawers and junk heaps: used-up li-ion batteries that could be recycled for their constituent metals. We have already done this with lead-acid batteries, which are almost universally recycled into a closed loop that turns metals back into new batteries.

Further, investment in recycling in the U.S. can both create new industrial manufacturing jobs and start to close the gap in our race to secure critical materials for the future innovation economy. The National Renewable Energy Labs predicts that nearly one-fourth of the world’s cobalt demand can be met through recycling by 2025. We can turn our deficit into an advantage with some small steps in crucial areas of policy development and investment.

Related: China Is Beating the US in the Rare-Earths Game

Related: Defense One Radio podcast episode No. 25: Rare earth-hunting in US coal country

First, we need to collect far more of the batteries we now throw out. While the United States is one of the world’s largest consumers of li-ion batteries, perhaps one in 20 is returned for recycling — a far cry from the 40 percent collected in Europe, where collection infrastructure is more established. U.S. battery manufacturers fund the leading collector, the non-profit Call2Recycle, but more must be done to change consumer recycling behavior by creating public/private initiatives to offer incentives and a door-to-door collection infrastructure.

Second, we need to expand the U.S. ability to recycle batteries. Today, we ship most of our collected li-ion batteries for recycling in South Korea, Europe, or, yes, China. But it is only getting more expensive and difficult to send heavy batteries by rail and ship.

The U.S. government has already taken some positive steps. At the end of 2017, the Trump administration issued an executive order to “Ensure Secure and Reliable Supplies of Critical Minerals.” Last year, the Department of the Interior identified cobalt and several other minerals as critical and affirmed their intention to look for ways to increase U.S. access to those materials. And in January, the Department of Energy announced a Lithium-Ion Battery Recycling Prize and the establishment of an associated Battery Recycling R&D Center aimed at recycling and reclaiming critical materials like cobalt and lithium. This is a good start.  

States can also explore innovative policies to increase recycling of li-ion batteries. These should aim first to reduce the regulatory obstacles by streamlining the permit process and taking a fresh look at fire-safety and transportation regulations that add more cost than public benefit. California and Maryland have already asked pertinent government agencies for policy proposals for effective li-ion battery recycling. Those proposals have the chance to serve as models for national adoption and should be followed closely.

Supply-chain constraints on li-ion battery materials aren’t just a problem for U.S. companies that use them. Our reliance on China and DRC cobalt refining and mining sources present a national security challenge. Recycling of our spent li-ion batteries is a good start to solving this critical challenge. 

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