Battery Recycling as a Business

Lithium-ion batteries are expensive to manufacture and this is mainly due to the high raw material cost and complex preparation processes. The most costly metal of most Li-ion is cobalt, a hard lustrous gray material that’s also used to manufacture magnets and high-strength alloys.

The first commercial Li-ion battery of the early 1990s was lithium iron cobalt.  The high specific energy made this battery popular for mobile phones, laptops and digital cameras. Other lithium-ion systems soon emerged, in part to substitute cobalt with the lower-cost manganese and nickel, as well as to gain better load capability, improve safety and prolong service life. Then came lithium iron phosphate, a lithium-based battery that uses no cobalt. This system delivers excellent load capability and offers high stability, but comes at the cost of lower specific energy. See Types of Lithium-ion Batteries. Table 1 lists the material value per ton of lithium-ion batteries. The table also includes lead acid, the easiest and most profitable battery to recycle.
 

Battery Chemistry

Metal value (per ton)

Table 1: Metal value per
ton of battery

Lead acid remains the most suitable battery to recycle; 70% of its weight contains reusable lead.

Lithium cobalt oxide

$25,000

Lithium iron phosphate

$400

Lead acid

$1,500


Knowing that billions of Li-ion batteries are discarded every year, and given the high cost of cobalt, one wonders why so few companies recycle these batteries. The reason becomes clear when examining the complexity and low yield. The retrieved raw material barely pays for labor, which includes collection, transport, sorting into batteries chemistries, shredding, separation of metallic and non-metallic materials, neutralizing hazardous substances, smelting, and purifying the recovered metals. See How to Recycle Batteries.

Consumers return 20–40 percent of spent household batteries for recycling. Many are faded laptop batteries, their life if known to be short, but one of the highest numbers comes from mobile phones. Since the battery is the only replaceable part of most mobile phones, service providers replace them as a way to solve an apparent phone problem. Most times, the fault lies elsewhere and examining the returned batteries reveal that 90 percent of these returned packs are good or can be restored with a simple service.

Ingenious entrepreneurs have discovered a business opportunity to test and recirculate batteries that have been collected in overflowing boxes under the counters of mobile phone stores. Battery service centers have sprung up in the USA, UK and Israel. They purchase surplus batteries by the ton and check them with Cadex battery analyzers. This is made possible with QuickSort™, a technology that assesses the battery state-of-health in 30 seconds. Read more about Testing Lithium-based Batteries.

Some service centers handle as many as 400,000 batteries per month. Customers receiving restored B-Class batteries offer the same performance as new packs with no increased returns. Figure 2 shows a box of unwanted mobile phone batteries for testing and recirculation. Restoring discarded batteries offers a profitable and clean alternative to recycling.

  Discarded mobile phone batteries for service and redistribution

 

 

Figure 2: Discarded mobile phone
batteries for service and
redistribution

90% of warranty returns can be serviced. Modern battery rapid-test technologies
make rapid sorting possible.

Courtesy of Cadex

Larger batteries can also be tested and reused. Several companies, including ABB, are studying the redeployment of reclaimed batteries from electric vehicles. EV batteries have a longer life than packs used in mobile phones and laptops. EV manufacturers estimate up to 70 percent remaining capacity after 10 years of service when the car may be worn out. This presents sufficient reserve performance for less demanding application such as residential and commercial energy storage systems. An effective rapid-test method to check these larger batteries does not yet exist and would help the business case.

Lead acid are the most widely recycled batteries and the automotive industry receives credit for making this possible early on. Recycling programs are believed to have started soon after Cadillac introduced the cranking motor in 1912. The process is simple and up to 70 percent of the battery’s weight yields reusable lead. In the USA, recycled batteries provide over 50 percent of the lead supply, and leading lead-acid battery manufacturers, including Johnson Controls and Exide Technologies, run profitable recycling operations. There are over 100 million e-bikes on Chinese roads and the mostly lead acid batteries are responsible for 20 percent of China’s 3.7 tons of lead refining. 

Recycling can be dirty and the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) has imposed strict guidelines to recycle lead acid batteries. The plants must be sealed and the smokestacks fitted with scrubbers. To check for possible lead escape, the perimeters must be surrounded by lead-monitoring devices.

However, people find loopholes. Lead is gold and many batteries end up in Mexico and other developing countries with lax regulations. This puts workers and residents at risk of lead poisoning. Lead can enter the body by inhaling lead dust or ingestion by touching the mouth with lead-contaminated hands. Children are most vulnerable; excessive lead can affect growth, cause brain damage, harm kidneys, impair hearing and induce behavioral problems. Read more about Health Concerns with Batteries.

Nickel-based batteries can also be recycled and the retrieved materials are iron and nickel, materials used in stainless steel production. Nickel-metal-hydride (NiMH) yields the highest return in nickel and with enough supply, the recycling process is said to make money. The lower demand for cadmium has a reduced profitability for NiCd batteries. Furthermore the difficulty to retrieve precious metals from Li-ion makes this battery less attractive and a financial breakeven may not be possible. Although alkaline and carbon zinc amount to over 90 percent of batteries consumed in the United States, the precious metals content is low, so is the toxicity. Nevertheless, organizations are seeking ways to recycle them also. Table 3 lists the typical metals content of commonly recycles batteries.
 

 

Fe
Iron

Mn Manganese

Ni
Nickel

Zn
Zinc

Li
Lithium

Cd
Cadmium

Co
Cobalt

Al
Aluminum

Pb
Lead

Lead acid

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

65

NiCd

35

 

22

 

 

15

 

 

 

NiMH

20

1

35

1

 

 

4

 

 

Li-ion

22

 

 

 

3

 

18

5

 

Alkaline

24

22

 

15

 

 

 

 

 

Table 3: Metals in commonly recycled batteries as a percentage of the overall content. The metal content may vary according to battery type.

Battery recycling is energy-intensive and it takes 6–10 times more energy to reclaim metals from recycled batteries than through other sources, including mining. Efficient logistics to get the batteries is important, and recyclers claim that the business could be profitable if a steady stream of batteries, sorted by chemistry, were available at no charge. See also How to Recycle Batteries.

Recycling Lithium

Some lobby groups warn about an imminent lithium shortage; they compare lithium to fossil oil as the future commodity of high demand. The need for Li-ion batteries is indeed increasing, and finding sufficient lithium as a raw material could be a challenge for the mining industry. A compact EV battery (Nissan Leaf) uses about 4kg (9lb) of lithium. If every man, woman and teenager were to drive an electric car, a lithium shortage could indeed develop.

Lithium is named after the Greek word “lithos” meaning “stone.” About 70 percent of the world’s supply comes from brine (salt lakes); the remainder is derived from hard rock. Scientists are developing technology to draw lithium from seawater. China is the largest consumer of lithium; they believe that future cars will run on Li-ion batteries and an unbridled supply of lithium is important to them. The total demand for lithium in 2009 reached almost 92,000 metric tons, of which batteries consumed 26 percent. Figure 4 illustrates uses of lithium that also include lubricants, glass, ceramics, pharmaceuticals and refrigeration.

Lithium consumption (2008)

Figure 4: Lithium consumption (2008)

Batteries consume the highest percentage of lithium. With the advent of the electric vehicle, the demand could skyrocket but for now the world has enough proven reserve.

Courtesy of Talison Minerals

Most of the known lithium sources are in Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, Australia and China. The supply is ample and concerns of global shortages are speculative. It takes 750 tons of brine, the base of lithium, and 24 months of preparation to get one ton of lithium in Latin America. Lithium can also be recycled an unlimited number of times; 20 tons of spent Li-ion batteries yield one ton of lithium, but recycling could be more expensive than harvesting new supply through mining. The recycled lithium is contaminated and has a quality similar to raw material that needs much processing.  

Lithium is inexpensive. The raw material costs a fraction of one cent per watt, or less than 0.1 percent of the battery cost. A $10,000 battery for a plug-in hybrid contains less than $100 worth of lithium. Rather than worrying about a lack of lithium, graphite, the anode material, could be in short supply. A large EV battery uses about 25kg (55lb) of anode material. The process to make anode-grade graphite with 99.99 percent purity is expensive and produces much waste.

There is also a concern about shortages of rare earth materials for permanent magnets. Electric motors with permanent magnets are among the most energy efficient and they are found in many EV powertrains. China controls about 95 percent of the global market for rare earth metals and they expect to use most of these resources for its own production. High prices of these metals may encourage more recycling in the future but current methods are difficult because the material tends to oxidize. Returning these elements to their metallic state requires special procedures that may not be economical with current technologies. 

Summary

Batteries are made for good performance and long life at a low price. Recycling is an afterthought and manufacturers invest little to simplify retrieving precious metals. The recycling business is small compared to the vast battery industry, and to this day only lead acid can be recycled profitably. Nickel-based batteries might make money with good logistics, but Li-ion and most other chemistries yield too little in precious metals to make recycling a viable business without subsidies. The true cost to manufacture a modern battery is not only in raw materials alone but in preparation, purification and processing into micro- and nano-structures. Recycling brings the metal to ground zero from which the preparations must start anew.

To make the recycling business feasible, subsidies are needed by adding a tax to each cell sold. Perhaps more important than earning a profit is preventing toxic batteries from entering landfills. Soil contamination can be harmful to health and is difficult to reverse.  

The key in reducing the battery wasteland, however, is to respect batteries by treating them well and only discard them when no salvage remedy exists. Better charge methods, clever battery monitoring systems (BMS) and advanced battery test devices help in getting the full life out of a battery. Too many batteries are being replaced as a way to troubleshoot an apparent problem. Advanced diagnostic devices help in eliminating trial-by-error so that only batteries with valid deficiencies are being exchanged.

Caution  Under no circumstances should batteries be incinerated, as fire can cause an explosion. Wear approved gloves when touching electrolyte. On exposure to skin, flush with water immediately. If eye exposure occurs, flush with water for 15 minutes and consult a physician immediately. 

Comments

On February 10, 2012 at 11:30am
Ziv Lang wrote:

Do you have information pertaining to the actual recycling sites situated in the aforementioned countries?

On May 13, 2012 at 6:01am
Bill Norcutt wrote:

I am spending time and resources developing a battery recycling——-
Rare Earth Metal business
Lookingt for and offering help to others
Bill Norcutt
dollarbillsdallas@tx.rr.com
214-264-9000

On August 19, 2012 at 10:37pm
Mark Batt wrote:

I am very interested the battery technology field, as I have worked with batteries for thirty years. and would like to advance my knowlegde, as to ways to make a profit instead of always breaking even.

On September 3, 2012 at 5:28am
Rytis wrote:

We are looking for person who can help to set up the lead battery recycling business. We are very interested to open battery recycling factory in eastern Europe. If you able to help us please dont hesitate to contact.

Regards

On November 14, 2012 at 12:45am
John Thompson wrote:

I have a continues supply of small spent 3.7v li-ion batteries that are piling up, I’m looking for a profitable recycling solution.
vr4boostin@aol.com

On January 17, 2013 at 4:44pm
lb gragg wrote:

It seems to me there should be a better way to store electricity how did God do it to make lightning maybe someone has or will If the road or something else was pos or neg and the other was mechanically produced with movement and a start primer little battery storage needs also the carrier line could steer the car

On March 11, 2013 at 6:06pm
Ed wrote:

I would urge those who are considering business models based on battery “recycling”—that is, recovering batteries’ constituent components and materials for resale at a profit—to think very hard first.  Then, think about it some more.

The essence of the article is that NiMH battery recycling might just break even, and only automotive lead-acid battery recycling is profitable in any meaningful way. Other battery types involve too much labour and energy to be recycled without subsidies.

I know that in North America, product- and battery-manufacturer-subsidized programs exist to pick up and recycle these types.  Check your local listings.  I would expect Europe to offer similar or better options.  You would be well advised to make use of these programs because you will only lose money doing it yourself without a subsidy.  If you’re really determined, you might set up a facility and join one of these programs yourself, but that seems like a poor idea for a stand-alone business.  I don’t think you could really profit in this way; instead, it would likely be a part of a larger, profitable, operation

If you have large quantities of marginal batteries, you might find useful the equipment manufactured and sold by Cadex Electronics, the creator and host of Battery University.  Such equipment includes battery analyzers, testers, and reconditioners for various cell types.  You might save enough money by restoring and returning batteries to service rather than discarding them, for the equipment to pay for itself.

I want to point out that storing large numbers of lithium-ion batteries is potentially dangerous.  You do not simply throw these into a big pile and turn your back if you know what’s good for you.  It’s not too hard to imagine a short circuit occurring, due perhaps to a conductive area on a battery casing, or some random piece of metal dropped into the pile.  The next thing you know, you have a toxic lithium fire that you can’t put out (hint: DO NOT use water!).  The larger the pile, the greater the danger, kids.  Precautions include carefully storing batteries to prevent short circuits, isolating them from flammable materials (including other batteries), and discharging them prior to storage.

People view lead-acid batteries as toxic waste that should be disposed of at cost, so many leave their non-working automotive batteries laying about in random parking lots and industrial areas by the dark of night.  However, many metal-recycling facilities will accept lead-acid batteries, paying perhaps $10 for an automotive battery.  Most people seem to be unaware that you can be paid for your old battery.  A bonus is that the toxic lead is kept out of the environment.

There appears to be an opportunity for a business recycling the lead-acid battery.  Some batteries might be obtained at little to no cost, so the profit potential seems significant.  However, the toxic nature of the activity means that you are limited in where this could be done, and it seems it would be part of a larger and profitable metal-recycling operation.  You will not be doing this in your back yard.

A theme appears to be developing: a stand-alone business accepting batteries for recycling seems hopeless.  The Cadex equipment, however, might be useful in reducing costs for operations that already have large quantities of poorly functioning rechargeable batteries for whatever reason.  Examples of such operations might include industrial battery users trying to minimize battery replacement costs, and recycling operations trying to divert some batteries for reuse rather than being recycled, thus (perhaps) paying for the equipment.

Like Cadex, I am in the Vancouver area, but that is a coincidence.  I have nothing to do with Cadex except that I am a fan of Battery University, so I do not know how much the equipment costs or how long it would take to pay for itself.  I suspect the man on the street would have to be very patient and start young.

Finally, I can’t help remarking on the previous comment by “lb gragg.” It was my original intent, but I got off the rails.  Gragg, the fact that you ask such a question about how God “stores” electricity is almost comical in its irony, for gods are not known for encouraging questions.  However, in your unconventional writing style, you appear to be describing two things, both of which exist here on Earth (come down and join us): 1) Capacitors, and 2) Electric railroads.  Both old news.  If you would devote as much time to studying scientific literature or even the Wikipedia as you do religious texts, you would have known this.  Cheers.

On May 3, 2013 at 2:50am
Dan Scott wrote:

I am interested in this field, I am from the UK, much seems a gap in the market here for this still. I would appreciate any help and support to help me get started.

On May 3, 2013 at 5:08am
S.Rytis wrote:

Hello Mr.Scott
at the moment our company looking for trusted partner, that to properly manage battery scrap business in UK. If you are intrested, please contacts us: trade (at) tcbaltic.eu


Regards
S.Rytis

On July 5, 2013 at 4:57am
Barbara Barron wrote:

I also am interested in battery recycling and would like to be kept informed of any updates to the present info.

On September 17, 2013 at 9:04pm
Kushle Sharma wrote:

I want to start Acid Battery Recycling Industry in Jaipur,Rajasthan,India.
I dnt kno d process dat how to start lead business?
Can anyone help me to start d process of industry?

On October 7, 2013 at 1:30am
levan wrote:

I am writing from Georgia and I’m doing toner cartridges recycling plant as well as printers and other computer equipment repair maintenance, our country is not a battery recycling
  Enterprise.
Please help me where is the recycling center because it will take part in nature conservation. Thank you

On October 9, 2013 at 1:45pm
Ernesto Hernandez wrote:

I want to start my own recycling center here in Perris, CA i want to know want i need to start and how muck are you guys pay per lb on the batteries. If you can get back to me i will appreciate it thanks

On October 19, 2013 at 10:36pm
Carlos Carboni wrote:

I am interested in exporting disposed lead acid batteries from Costa Rica. Shipments would include automotive batteries without the electrolyte and sealed VRLA batteries such as those used in uniterruptible power supplies and other non-automotive applications. I may ship up to two 20 Foot containers per week with an average load of 20.000 Kgs. In the past I was involved in an organization that shipped similar quantities to several destinations in Asia. I would like to help clean the environment of my home country while making some money!

On October 20, 2013 at 4:44am
TCB wrote:

To: Carlos Carboni
please contact us: trade @ tcbaltic . eu

On November 3, 2013 at 1:32am
Imran R wrote:

Hai,
I have my own battery lead recycle factory with all govt certificates.located in krishnagiri tamilnadu ,India…I am looking for partner for my business.
You can feel free to contact.
919341836119
918123561118
Contact person name: Imran

On November 14, 2013 at 8:19am
Razdar Muhammad wrote:

Hi,
i want to start a cell phone batteries manufacturing business in pakistan.
please help me. plz plz plzzzzzzzzzzzzz

On November 14, 2013 at 8:22am
Razdar Muhammad wrote:

plz contect me on +92 346 9715441

On December 13, 2013 at 8:15am
Mirza Abrar wrote:

we have lead acid battery regenerating plant newly installed himself;
and also intrusted to expand it in pakistan .
this unit is state of the art technology which is developed in current year.
production depends upon the istalled units.

On March 17, 2014 at 10:23pm
akshay thote wrote:

We have regular requirement for lead acid battery scrap, we are looking for reliable supplier for long-term business relation.

We also can help people to set-up a Battery recycling plant with pollution control devices.

Please do not hesitate to contact me on my email id: sales@metalint.co.in