NREL looks at barriers to lithium-ion battery recycling and sees opportunities


Researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) released a report detailing the technological, market, and regulatory hurdles to creating a circular economy for lithium-ion batteries.

The battery technology is increasingly in demand for energy storage and use in electric vehicles (EVs). But its current lifecycle is almost entirely one-way, from manufacture to consumption to disposal, with little thought given to reuse or recycling. Only one U.S. lithium-ion battery recycling facility exists today, the analysts said.

To start to rethink the one-way lifecycle, the NREL team assessed the current state of reuse and recycling of large-format lithium-ion batteries used in EVs and battery energy storage. They found that reusing and recycling the batteries could create U.S. market opportunities, stabilize the supply chain, reduce environmental impacts, and ease resource constraints.

And they found that a circular economy would derive more value from battery energy storage systems. Materials would be reused, recycled, or refurbished for multiple lifetimes rather than one-and-done, which uses up finite resources and creates waste.

Three barriers

The researchers said that technology, infrastructure, and processes are current barriers. For example, lithium-ion battery designs and makeup vary by manufacturer, making it hard to design a standard process to cost-effectively reuse or recover materials.

In addition, scant reliable, publicly available information exists on the state or volume of retired lithium-ion batteries, or on the cost to recondition them for other uses. The analysts recommended government-funded research, development, analysis, and incentives, as well as information exchanges, to increase knowledge and boost private investment.

Regulations also play a critical role, but current codes and standards are unclear, complex, and vary by jurisdiction, the researchers said.

Taylor Curtis

Based on their findings, NREL analysts highlighted existing regulations that could impact the installation and grid interconnection of repurposed lithium-ion batteries.

Some states like California or New York are revising their regulations to ensure requirements for connecting to the grid specifically apply to battery energy storage systems, said Taylor Curtis, project lead and NREL analyst. Curtis noted, “This is a big development considering interconnection regulations were not developed with these types of systems in mind.”

Defining waste

A further challenge is that it is unclear how decommissioned lithium-ion batteries are legally defined in terms of waste. As recently as July, no U.S. federal policies directly addressed battery energy storage system decommissioning, or either mandated or incentivized reuse or recovery of lithium-ion batteries.

In general, decommissioned lithium-ion batteries are often considered either hazardous or universal waste, both of which have their own regulations. Regulations also vary by jurisdiction, and non-compliance may lead to fines.

Federal hazardous waste laws and regulations are the most stringent, the research said, and govern how hazardous waste is generated, handled, stored, treated, transported, and disposed of. Lithium-ion batteries that are gathered, stored, or treated before recycling could be subject to hazardous waste laws.

In some states, the penalties for violating hazardous waste laws or regulations are more stringent than federal penalties. For example, the report said that intentionally or negligently violating a provision of California’s hazardous waste laws or regulations can result in a fine of up to $70,000 a day for each violation.

The report said that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has created alternative regulatory controls for recycling materials, such as lead-acid batteries. The aim of those rules is to encourage collecting and recycling hazardous waste. A similar designation for lithium-ion batteries, the NREL report said, could ease liability concerns and make the economics of recycling more desirable.

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