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Why Are Cobalt And Lithium Crucial For Sustainability?

October 19, 2023
Whether we like it or not, getting to a sustainable battery recycling future will not happen overnight...
Batteries recycling

Whether we like it or not, getting to a sustainable battery recycling future will not happen overnight. Certain crucial elements are vital in driving our combined efforts forward. Cobalt and lithium are two periodic table elements necessary for various electronics industries such as electric vehicles (EVs), lithium-ion batteries, and even efforts to build renewable energy storage systems.  

At Recycle Technologies, our primary effort against battery waste is to build a relationship of trust with our customers. We are enabling household items containing batteries to be dropped off at a secured facility. We also provide a mail-in recycling service for businesses, getting things from all over the country. Our efforts this way prevent electronic waste and batteries from ending up in landfills and incinerators, which is a huge step in ensuring sustainable goals.   

The Role of Cobalt and Lithium in Batteries  

Today, half the world's cobalt is used for batteries. At the end of the 20th century, the element was exclusively used in dyes and paints. It was only after the electronics boom in the early 21st century that cobalt became synonymous with electronic batteries.  

Cobalt is one of the key ingredients, along with other metals like lithium, nickel, and manganese, inside these fast-charging, long-lasting batteries that power our digital lives. Most modern electric batteries include lithium-nickel-manganese-cobalt-oxide (NMC) batteries, often called "cobalt batteries," with a cathode containing 10-20% cobalt. It is especially the case with EV batteries and not Li-ion ones.   

Cobalt in lithium-ion batteries enhances their stability, energy density, and overall performance. Many electric vehicle manufacturers rely on cobalt-rich battery chemistries for their vehicles' battery packs. Cobalt demand could triple from 140,000 tons in 2020 to more than 300,000 tons by 2030.  

Lithium, on the other hand, helps us make batteries with higher shelf life and are lightweight. Li has dominated a huge chunk of our battery needs, from laptops and cell phones to hybrids and electric cars. Global lithium demand is projected to grow from 332,000 metric tons in 2022-23 to over 1 million metric tons by 2030. These batteries capture and store excess energy, providing a consistent and reliable power supply, even when renewable sources are not generating electricity.  

Consequently, it also results in tons of discarded cobalt and lithium batteries in landfills per year, with nowhere to go. It so happens that we can recycle Li-ion batteries and reuse the cobalt and lithium elements for a second round, but it is sadly not the case.  

Battery Recycling

Significant Impacts of Cobalt and Lithium on Sustainability  

We must discuss cobalt and lithium mining to talk about going green. As a standalone statistic, lithium, and cobalt (combined) mining causes around 34 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) worldwide annually.  

Lithium is mined using a process known as brine mining, which involves extracting the metal from underground saltwater reserves. Due to the increase in the demand for Li-ion batteries, there is always a risk of polluting the groundwater for humans and animals.  

While cobalt mining does not directly involve water bodies, it is more labor-intensive. Unlike lithium, cobalt is not abundantly available underground. Most cobalt produced worldwide is produced in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). However, there has been a lot of debate in the media and among environment conservatives on the conditions of the mines used to manufacture cobalt.  

A primary factor driving laborers to stay in these sectors is the higher-than-average salary ($3 daily, higher than the country's average). Moreover, consequent financial incentives that come with operating artisanal mines also compel people to send their children to the mining fields. According to current estimates, artisanal mining employs between 140,000 and 200,000 people in the DRC.  

Future-Proofing Recycling Efforts  

It is not that current efforts are not enough; it is just that we need to discuss how to contain e-waste in the future. Ensuring a sustainable future involves the responsible extraction of cobalt and lithium and their efficient recycling.

Here are examples of future-proofing lithium and cobalt recycling efforts:  

Lithium Battery Recycling Programs  

Numerous companies and organizations are developing recycling programs for lithium-ion batteries. For instance, Recycle Technologies offers a recycling program where old batteries are collected and processed, allowing valuable materials like cobalt and lithium to be reused in new battery production.  

These programs are focused on Li-ion alone and promoting EV battery recycling to increase awareness of deposing electronic vehicle components responsibly.  

Establishing Closed-Loop Systems  

In a closed-loop system, materials are recycled and reused within the same industry. Some automotive manufacturers are pioneering closed-loop systems for battery recycling. Audi, for instance, is actively working on creating a circular economy for lithium-ion batteries.  

Advanced Separation Techniques  

Advanced separation techniques, such as hydrometallurgical processes, are being explored to recover cobalt and lithium efficiently from batteries. These more environmentally friendly methods reduce the need for new mining operations.  

A Search for Alternatives  

Researchers are investigating alternative materials that can reduce the reliance on cobalt and lithium. This includes solid-state batteries, which can replace traditional lithium-ion batteries and be easily recycled.  

What Is the Future of Battery Recycling?  

Cobalt and lithium are at the forefront of future-proofing sustainability, with their crucial roles in EVs, renewable energy storage, and other emerging technologies. However, the ethical and environmental challenges associated with their extraction and supply chain practices must be addressed to ensure a sustainable future.

By driving innovation, fostering collaborations, and considering diverse perspectives, we can work towards reducing our dependence on these elements and adopting more sustainable alternatives and practices. It is only through conscious efforts that we can make the process circular.  

If you appreciate our efforts to make battery recycling sustainable, check our website to stay up to date on our sustainable actions and tangible methods through which we hope to bridge the gap.

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