Electric car charging point by Frank Hebbert

By Aishwarya Vedula, age 12 and Indykids Staff

As climate change continues to be a growing concern, many countries are focusing on ways to use renewable energy. A big part of renewable resources is the use of lithium-ion batteries. Though they are not only used in renewable products—for example, cellphones and laptops and many other appliances use them too—they are on the rise with “green energy” products such as electric cars.

There are currently around 2 million electric cars in use, and it’s predicted that 125 million more will be added to the roads by 2030 as countries push to meet their targets as part of the Paris Agreement to tackle climate change. While this sounds like a wonderful idea to decrease carbon emissions, it brings up a new question: What do we do with the large volume of lithium-ion batteries that are generated as waste?

Lithium is an element that can be toxic if it is not disposed of properly. It’s also a finite resource, which requires mining. So recycling is imperative with the expected increase in its future use.

Although recycling these batteries and extracting the original elements in lithium batteries might seem like the straightforward thing to do, this process can become very expensive to sustain in the long term. Traditional methods of recycling the elements often require extreme heat and the use of toxic products.

But researchers at Rice University have found an environmentally friendly solution to extract the essential cobalt and lithium metals from lithium-ion batteries that no longer work. The solvent they use to extract the elements means these metals can be recycled to make new batteries.

“It’s important to recover strategic metals like cobalt that are limited in supply and are critical for the performance of these energy-storage devices,” Rice University scientist Pulickel Ajayan told Science Daily. “Something to learn from our present situation with plastics is that it is the right time to have a comprehensive strategy for recycling the growing volume of battery waste.”

Although this technology is rather new, and scientists are not confident these recycling methods will replace mining lithium altogether, they are optimistic that they are on a positive path.

“We truly believe in the potential for greener ways to do dirty chemistry. Sustainability is at the heart of the work I do and what I want to do for the rest of my career,” Kimmai Tran, a Rice graduate student and lead author of this new research report, told Science Daily.