At the ReCell Center, the country’s first advanced battery recycling center at the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, a team from Michigan Technological University (MTU) has pioneered a method for separating batteries. The cathode is a positively charged electrode within a lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery. This innovative process paves the way for large-scale recycling of substantial batteries.

Electric Vehicles (EVs) are powered by lithium-ion batteries, as are most portable electronics, including smartphones, tablets, etc. Especially in the EV realm, the demand for batteries has outweighed the technology available to recycle them.

Called “froth flotation,” the process has been used for awhile according to the study, “Used for many years by the mining industry to separate and purify ores, froth flotation separates materials in a flotation tank based on whether they repel water and float, or absorb water and sink. Generally, cathode materials sink, which makes them difficult to separate from each other. That’s true of lithium nickel manganese cobalt oxide (NMC111) and lithium manganese oxide, two common EV battery cathode materials that the ReCell team used in its experiments. What the researchers found was that separation can be achieved by making one of the cathode materials, NMC111, float via the introduction of a chemical that makes the target material repel water. Once the cathode materials were separated, the researchers determined through testing that the process had a negligible impact on the electrochemical performance of the materials. Both also had high purity levels (95% or above). [F]or now, the ReCell Center team is laser-focused on creating, step by step, a complete recycling process for lithium-ion batteries that is economically viable.”

Before 2032, researcher’s guestimate that two million tons of end-of-life EV Li-ion batteries will be expiring every year, so the process for recycling them is extremely critical. As an increasing number of older model EVs reach the end of their lives, the recycling technology is currently not up to speed.

Since the cathode materials in each EV battery vary by automaker and production year, recycling consists of mixing lithium metal oxides and individually separating each one for them to be reused. Once impossible, this is now feasible thanks to the novel research done by MTU.

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