A 29-year-old French researcher received an award from the European Institute of Innovation and Technology for her work on recycling graphite from used lithium-ion batteries — a material that companies have previously been unable to recover, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reports.
Anna Vanderbruggen’s new method allows her to recover graphite from “black mass,” a mixture of materials from used batteries that also includes cobalt, nickel, lithium, and manganese. Nobody had previously found a viable plan for recycling the battery graphite, she told AFP.
To extract the graphite, she adds water and a mixture of chemicals to the black mass, then runs bubbles of air through it. The graphite is more attracted to the air, while the other components of the mixture are more attracted to the water, so they separate.
Philippe Barboux, a chemistry professor at Paris Sciences et Lettres University, told AFP that the price of lithium, a vital battery component, has increased by 13% in five years. Graphite is also getting harder to find because Europe is trying to move away from its past sources in China and other countries.
“Battery manufacturers were not interested” in recycled graphite until now because “they could get it at low cost in China,” Vanderbruggen told AFP.
Recycling used batteries to get the material to make new ones helps address these supply problems.
For example, Barboux told AFP, “In 10 years’ time, so many batteries will be manufactured that lithium will absolutely have to be recycled, otherwise, there won’t be enough.”
One study even showed that recycled lithium batteries might perform better than all-new ones.
While there aren’t currently enough used batteries available to recycle into new ones, that is likely to change in the next 10 years.
“It’s a huge growing market, and we want to play a role in it,” Ken Nagayama, of German metals supplier Aurubis, told AFP, adding that he thinks there will be “sufficient market supply to develop a battery recycling plant in industrial scale during the second half of the decade.”
Aurubis claims it can recover at least 95% of the useful metals from black mass, but it doesn’t yet have a developed method to extract the graphite.
AFP reported that the EU is trying to incorporate recycled materials into all new batteries by 2031 and wants to recycle at least 70% of the weight of old batteries by then.
Join our free newsletter for weekly updates on the coolest innovations improving our lives and saving our planet.