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Lithium Battery Recycling and Second-Life Applications

Thursday, 11 March 2021 ( #1016 )
Second-life Applications and Recycling are Making Lithium Cleaner & Cheaper
While lithium-based battery technology has been around for decades, one of its greatest strengths created a barrier - but now that's changing. Recycling is getting cheaper and quicker, and repurposing is becoming widespread - and that's making lithium batteries more accessible across the MHE and GSE industries. Joshua King is from Fast Charge Australia. He says that while the power and performance of lithium batteries have long been superior, some of the barriers to ownership that once existed are now fast disappearing. "Lithium batteries have always been a viable investment because they offer five to nine years of operation compared to three to five years with lead-acid versions. However, some operators tend to stick with what they've got, and that's been happening for a couple of different reasons. The upfront cost is generally around two times higher with lithium, and not everyone needs to charge their batteries fast. If you're operating one shift a day, you can afford to charge overnight. For some, the fact most lead-acid batteries got recycled might have influenced their decision, too - and it certainly contributed to lead-acid being cheaper to buy." Switching to Lithium: Faster, Cleaner, More Efficient, and a Longer Service Life Forklift batteries work hard for relatively long periods but have great potential for reuse. The lithium batteries we use in warehouses retain around 80% of their energy capacity once they've reached the end of their useful life. What's exciting about recycling and repurposing lithium batteries is that while it's logistically similar to other materials - like vehicles and even clothing, there's more flexibility in future applications for the battery in your forklift. Warehouses all over Australia are reclaiming valuable space while reducing their energy costs and the size of their carbon footprint. Lithium eliminates the need for a battery charging room because operators just plug the machine in, and sophisticated charging equipment only draws what it needs from the grid. King also says that the future for MHE and GSE can be truly sustainable. "We're bringing FCA Lithium Power and a range of other cutting-edge tech like Resonant Frequency (RF) chargers to Australia. They work by operating across a greater range of frequencies - all the way to 100Hz. Higher frequency chargers have a couple of distinct and profound advantages over traditional Ferro and SCR versions. They're smaller, quieter, and dissipate far less heat, making them incredibly efficient. They're also digitally controllable, resulting in improved battery performance, better reporting, and longer service life.
We also supply ground-breaking Active Load Management (ALM) equipment, which makes battery charging up to 97% efficient by maximising charging when electricity tariffs are low. Some customers save millions each year using ALM, and it usually negates the need to upgrade your electrical installation when you want to install several chargers." The fact lithium cells paired with high-performance charging and monitoring systems perform so well for so long has been driving huge efficiency and productivity gains in MHE and GSE for a while now, and it's making warehouses cleaner and greener too. "The benefits of lithium batteries have always been pretty clear," says Ryan Gibson from Fastcharge, USA. "There's no gassing, so they're cleaner. Employees don't have to remove them from forklifts when charging, top up fluids, or carry out any maintenance - so they're safer too. You can run a forklift 24-7 using lithium, and there's no remedial work required to retrofit batteries. Trucks can be opportunity-charged quickly during breaks and between shifts. Lithium batteries also last a great deal longer than lead-acid - more than twice as long, in fact." Despite that, there's been a lag in battery recycling's commercial viability because not enough spent batteries had been available. As more batteries appear, there's been a surge in activity aimed at doing more with them. Adrian Clayton from Fastcharge, Africa says that combining recycling, repurposing, and a genuinely tailored battery supply approach creates a more lithium-friendly environment. "FCA isn't a traditional forklift power supply company because we're not tied to any one product. We believe our customers are unique, and we want them to take back the power when it comes to energy, efficiency, and productivity. We act more like a broker or consultant, getting to know their operations, pinch points, and where they're wasting money. Then, we tailor the ideal sustainable solution based on cutting-edge tech - whether that's lead-acid or lithium-based. These new recycling and second-life opportunities make lithium's benefits more accessible, and I think that's great news for everyone. It's an exciting time, and it represents a real opportunity for companies to maximise their excellence and celebrate what makes them different. With such a range of solutions out there in 2021, settling for off-the-shelf is doing many businesses an injustice and promotes mediocrity. At FCA, we draw on relationships with a global panel of innovative partners so we can make the extraordinary more possible." Refurbish → Reuse → Recycle: Fueling the Circular Battery Economy
One key area of promise for second-life lithium batteries is energy storage. As the world generates more sustainable power, there's a greater need to store the resulting energy - and that's a far less demanding application for batteries than powering forklifts in round-the-clock MHE environments. Forklifts need good current density, but energy storage applications demand far less, and cells with 80% capacity can get reused in a variety of places. In China, a telecom tower operator recently ditched lead-acid batteries for second-life lithium batteries in 98% of its installations. That equates to two million batteries supplying 54 GWh, all sourced from electric vehicle manufacturers. The logic behind the move? Well, at the time of the decision, second-life batteries cost less than brand new lead-acid versions, at $100 per kWh. Some estimates say that by 2025, second-life lithium batteries could be 30 - 70% cheaper than new ones, and many second-life batteries get certified for up to a decade of use in energy storage applications. There's even more incentive to recover the valuable components within old lithium batteries when you consider they can have a service life of a couple of decades before the need for recycling ever arises. Clayton says what we're seeing is an industry maturing and becoming more sophisticated as it grows. "New technologies rarely arrive on the scene with all the infrastructure they need. It takes time for satellite industries to spring up, and I think that's now happening with lithium batteries. These are very exciting times for the industry. We can offer a lot more for less investment and do that in a far more sustainable way." Reducing the Impacts of Mining and Refining with Lithium Recycling For recycling to be commercially viable, it needs to be cheaper than mining materials - and that's changing too. One of the costliest parts of making batteries - both financially and environmentally - is the mining and refining of manganese, nickel, and cobalt. One study estimates that first step - producing active materials - accounts for 20% of a cell's total cost. The same report indicates that recycling promises to cut the total cost of production by 48% - so it's no surprise there's now more interest in pursuing that. Barriers to lithium recycling were once three-fold. Direct recycling methods took longer and were more expensive; there were fewer spent batteries around, and materials used to be cheaper. Then, increased production of electric vehicles between 2016 and 2018 tripled lithium's price and quadrupled the cost of cobalt. Batteries became abundant, and recycling methods began improving - fast. Reducing the Cost to Manufacture - and the Environment
We're quickly finding greener ways to reuse lithium batteries and materials - and that's redefining the future of battery power. One new method employs citric acid for leaching. It yields 98% recovery of cobalt and 99% of lithium, takes just twenty minutes at 25 °C to leach 99% of the lithium, and there's almost zero solid or water waste. Before such processes, one of the biggest of those three barriers to large-scale lithium battery recycling was time. It could take a whole day to do what citric acid can achieve in minutes. The substance costs around 30% less than traditionally used acids, and it's organically produced and widely available. Up until now, it's been common to read about single-figure percentage rates for lithium battery recycling. However, repurposing and materials reclamation have come a long way in a short space of time - and that's been happening under the radar of many. With all that in mind, it's not so surprising to see one industry expert reporting a 58% recycling rate as far back as 2018. That's a big deal for the lithium battery industry. As Joshua King puts it, "For some operators out there, the lead-acid versus lithium dilemma will continue for a little while longer - depending on how they operate and what they need to achieve. For others, lithium will be a must. What recycling does is bring down the relative cost to manufacture - and the environment, and that just means there are fewer dilemmas to be had."
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