In the midst of widespread electronic products, the electric car is on its way to going mainstream in the future. Based on the EPA’s estimation, by 2025, Taiwan is looking at an annual output of 1,100 metric tons of waste rechargeable lithium batteries, potentially harmful to the environment if not properly disposed of. The EPA and the Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI) have jointly developed a new technology for waste battery disposal that is able, in low-energy-consuming and carbon-cutting ways, to extract precious metals for reuse with a tenfold increase in economic value over previous treatment methods. These metals can be reused for various purposes, creating a prospering circular economy.
Turning waste batteries to gold in the face of a booming need for batteries
In light of the booming development of electric cars and the significant demand for lithium cell anode materials, the EPA collaborated with ITRI to extract more value and purer cobalt sulfate and cobalt oxide from the black powder produced after treating waste rechargeable lithium cells. Both cobalt compounds are needed to manufacture anodes for lithium batteries. The collaboration has lasted three years, with crucial technology developed, and has now reached the mass production trial stage.
The research project utilizes thorough physical screening, extraction and purification to separate and extract critical pure compounds. The end result means local enterprises can better dispose of the 1,100 metric tons of waste rechargeable lithium cells produced every year in Taiwan. Not only are environmental harms from waste lithium batteries prevented, but a complete specialized system is set up in advance for recycling and resupply, enhancing the security of material supply for the industry.
Rechargeable lithium cells and batteries can be recharged and used repeatedly and are widely used in consumer electronics such as cellphones, cameras, laptop computers, and tablets because of their high energy density, long life cycle and low discharge rate. There is also a rising use of electric powered transport devices such as electric cars, electric scooters and electric-assist bicycles that rely on lithium batteries to store energy. All precious metals contained in these cells, including lithium, cobalt, nickel, manganese, and copper have to be imported into Taiwan. As electric motor vehicles continue to be actively promoted in Taiwan, the market for lithium cells booms, leading to a continual rise in demand for the relevant raw materials.
Domestic output of waste secondary lithium cells to reach 1,100 metric tons by 2025
Based on projected sales of consumer electronics and electric motor vehicles, it is estimated from calculations of product use cycles that the annual generation of waste rechargeable lithium cells in Taiwan will reach 1,100 metric tons by 2025. To keep precious metals within Taiwan’s borders, the EPA began working with ITRI three years ago on early preparation and development aimed at achieving high-value reuse of precious metals and other valuable resources extracted from waste lithium batteries.
ITRI ran trials on extracting highly pure precursor compounds that are used as raw materials in anodes from waste lithium batteries. First, other metals such as iron, copper, and aluminum are effectively removed from mixed anode and cathode powders via precise physical sorting and screening. Then different reducing agents are added to compare the ratio of extracted cobalt ions with a separation and purification process via adjustment of acidity and basicity. This way, anode precursor materials are extracted from the mixture powders, separated and purified, with a cobalt extraction rate of up to 98%. The extracted cobalt is made into cobalt oxide via thermal reduction in high heat, and the finished products have a cobalt content above 71.06 wt% and impurity content below 300 ppm, which complies with the specification for industrial-grade raw materials. The last part of the research project is a mass production trial and certification of renewable products.
New technology optimizes waste disposal and creates economic profits tenfold
ITRI explained that by using this technology, the mixed anode and cathode powders, which are of lower value, can be disposed of via separation and purification and turned into high-value cobalt oxide. Cobalt oxide is worth ten times the value of the powders. Other metals can also be extracted and reused through the same process, which increases overall economic benefits and contributes to a higher recycling rate. Aside from continual assistance for domestic enterprises for technological enhancement, other results include active facilitation of the technology through further signing memorandums with responsible enterprises.
The EPA’s statistics show that in 2021 a total of 600 metric tons of rechargeable lithium cells from electric cars and motorcycles, consumer electronics, and other products using such batteries were recycled, accounting for 15% of all recycled waste batteries that year. There are 8,000 electric cars on the street of Taiwan and 500,000 electronic motorcycles have been sold, taking the electric vehicle market to an economical scale of millions. Thus the amount of waste rechargeable lithium cells in Taiwan is estimated to reach 1,100 metric tons by 2025. All six local treatment plants have a combined annual capacity of roughly 2,200 metric tons, capable of handling all the rechargeable lithium battery waste generated.
The EPA pointed out that in the past, the majority of the mixed anode and cathode powders, which contained precious metals, were exported after being treated with the shredding and disposal technology then available in Taiwan. The “black powder” left could only be used as an auxiliary material in steel refineries and was worth merely NT$80/kg. However, with the newly developed technology involving prior sorting, screening and purification, the cobalt oxide alone is currently worth NT$800/kg, a tenfold increase in value over the previous unrefined black powder. This price is estimated to increase rapidly depending on global demand and political and economic circumstances in production regions. Cobalt oxide is a compound required in battery production and the chemical industry, and will be reutilized in the manufacture of lithium batteries. In this way, valuable resources can be kept in Taiwan, and the high-value recycling and reutilization also makes a circular economy a reality.
Urging the public to utilize the 20,000 recycling stations across Taiwan
Prospectively, the EPA noted that the participation of all citizens in properly recycling waste batteries is required even with such a low-polluting, high-value treatment technology in place. There are now over 20,000 waste battery recycling stations across Taiwan, including at hypermarkets, supermarkets, chain convenience stores, chain retail shops for cleaning products and cosmetics, convenience stores in traffic hubs and stations, retail shops for wireless communications equipment, telecommunications stores, recycling trucks of cleaning crews, and recycling stations in villages and neighborhoods.
The public is reminded to recycle the batteries inside toys, laser pointers, calculators, remote controls, automatic massage pads, telecommunications products and all sorts of rechargeable household appliances. Rechargeable batteries must be insulated with electrical tape on both ends to prevent fires from short circuits. There are designated locations and recycling channels for motor batteries from electric cars and motorcycles. When lithium cells are taken out of electric vehicles during maintenance or when being scrapped, maintenance or repair shops or vehicle recyclers must collect and take them to waste battery recycling or disposal enterprises.
Excerpt from Major Environmental Policies, February 2022
- Ministry of Environment