An innovative method to (finally) efficiently recycle lithium batteries

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The recycling of used batteries is a key issue for the environment, which is not new. A team of researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign just announced a breakthrough in this area, which would effectively separate nickel from cobalt for reuse.

The lithium batteries in our computers, phones, and a multitude of electronic devices are real little treasures. In fact, they contain rare and precious components, which constitute a non-renewable resource.

As the researchers responsible for this study point out, batteries contain elements such as lithium (5-8%), cobalt (5-20%), nickel (5-10%) and manganese (10-15%), and nickel. Metal hydride batteries also have a high content of nickel (36-42%) and cobalt (3-5%).

“There is, therefore, a growing urgency to develop sustainable strategies to recover the critical elements of potentially valuable secondary resources,” they explain in their publication. To recover these metals, which are embedded in the batteries, it is necessary to operate a separation at the molecular level that can sometimes be delicate. This is the case, for example, of cobalt and nickel.

Separate cobalt from nickel

Schematic representation of the process to adjust the selectivity of cobalt and nickel in electroplating processes. © Kwiyong Kim et al.

This is because cobalt and nickel are two metals that have similar electrochemical properties. Therefore, the scientists specify that they have similar “reduction potentials”. But what does this really mean? The redox potential is a transfer of electrons between two elements, caused by a chemical reaction. In this transfer, there are two elements:

  • The reducing agent: gives up electrons and, therefore, undergoes oxidation.
  • The oxidant: captures electrons and, therefore, undergoes a reduction.

In general terms, we can say, therefore, that by causing a chemical reaction, it is possible to “move electrons” according to different criteria and, therefore, potentially attract them separately to “classify” metals. The fact that cobalt and nickel have similar reduction potentials makes their classification difficult, simply because they will tend to react similarly to certain electrochemical stimuli. Therefore, they will remain “mixed”.

It is at the level of these properties of metals that scientists have decided to act to allow their separation. Once the metals were liquefied, they introduced elements capable of modifying their behavior during galvanizing. To do this, they used concentrated chloride and positively charged polyelectrolyte coated electrodes. Polyelectrolyte is an ionic polymeric material, that is, it carries groups of atoms that have an electrical charge (ions).

A “simple” method to recycle batteries

By applying this method and adjusting the concentration of the components, the scientists were able to separate the two metals by “controlling” their electrochemical characteristics. Then they settled in different layers.

The research team obtained a metal purity of 96.4% for cobalt and 94.1% for nickel. They also point out that this method requires fewer resources and energy than other existing chemical processes, which is an advantage for its discovery. They hope to continue improving the process in the future.

Nature Communications

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