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Your old phone could be used to power an EV — here's how scientists are turning smartphones into giant batteries

Experts believe that there is enough cobalt in just 166 cell phones to create a new EV battery.

Cell phones

Photo Credit: iStock

Do you have any old cell phones or laptops lying around somewhere? Maybe you couldn't sell them or trade them in because they were obsolete or broken, or you've been saving them for a rainy day. Well, you might want to find them … because their batteries could be recycled to help power a new electric vehicle.

What is lithium-ion battery recycling?

The past two decades have seen an explosion in the number of products that utilize lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries. Everything from cell phones to electric toothbrushes runs on them, and millions of individual battery-operated units are produced every day. 

The demand for the materials used in creating lithium-ion batteries — chief among them, the alkali metal lithium — has led to shortages and soaring prices

Lithium-ion battery recycling is the practice of reconstituting old lithium-ion batteries from objects such as laptops, hoverboards, and cell phones into new batteries that can be used to power new devices, like electric vehicles.

Why is lithium-ion battery recycling important?

The demand for devices that run on lithium-ion batteries is not going away, but the materials used to make the batteries might be. 

In addition to a limited supply of substances like lithium and cobalt and the difficulty in mining them, concerns about ecological damage and human rights violations have dogged efforts to surface more raw materials. If there were a way to ethically source materials used in lithium-ion batteries, it would be a major step toward creating a sustainable economy.

Recycling old batteries could be that new method. Battery recycling company Cirba Solutions estimates that Americans alone throw out 3 billion batteries every year, and with them, tons of precious natural resources. 

Experts believe that there is enough cobalt in just 166 cell phones to create a new electric vehicle battery. 

Unfortunately, lithium-ion battery recycling remains an inefficient process. Chemical & Engineering News correspondent Mitch Jacoby calls battery recycling "a classic chicken-and-egg problem," noting its difficulty and underutilization. 

"Because the Li-ion battery industry lacks a clear path to large-scale economical recycling, battery researchers and manufacturers have traditionally not focused on improving recyclability," he writes. "Instead, they have worked to lower costs and increase battery longevity and charge capacity. And because researchers have made only modest progress improving recyclability, relatively few Li-ion batteries end up being recycled."

Hope is in the air, though, as several private and public enterprises are striving to encourage battery recycling and create better recycling technologies. For-profit companies like Cirba Solutions and Li-Cycle offer material recovery services for old batteries using their own sustainable processes. Nonprofit Call2Recycle, which works with more than 200 companies that make batteries and battery-powered products, offers battery recycling services nationwide for both rechargeable and single-use batteries.

The U.S. Department of Energy's Vehicle Technologies Office has even started an advanced battery recycling R&D center called ReCell, which is pioneering what it calls "a new recycling process" known as direct recycling. 

"Direct recycling is the recovery, regeneration, and reuse of battery components directly without breaking down the chemical structure," reads the Recell website. "By maintaining the process value in the original battery components, a lower-cost re-constituted material can be supplied to battery manufacturers."

Independent market research firm IDTechEx forecasts that the market for lithium-ion battery recycling will grow exponentially in the decades to come. By 2042, the company projects that 13.2 million tons of lithium-ion batteries will be recycled worldwide, recovering $49 billion worth of valuable metals. That's a lot of EVs.

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