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Recycling Solar Batteries: All You Need to Know

By Aniket Bhor on in Solar Battery Information

Recycling Solar Batteries: All You Need to Know

Solar Battery Recycling

One of the favorite arguments of climate change deniers is that solar power equipment is harmful for the environment. The fact is, solar equipment is far less harmful to the environment than its fossil counterparts. For instance, installing and operating a coal power plant causes a staggeringly greater amount (around 40x) of pollution and waste than solar can ever do.

That said, there is no denying that solar equipment does have some impact on the environment, however minimal. This is particularly true in the case of solar batteries, which pack in a lot more weight and complexity than the panels themselves.

Thanks to low prices and excellent returns, the adoption of solar power has skyrocketed in the recent years, and will continue to do so. As such, the number of solar batteries in use will multiply, thanks to their ability to protect homes from power outages, among other benefits. Naturally, the amount of battery waste is also destined to keep growing over the years.

This makes solar battery recycling a crucial topic of discussion - which is what this article intends to do. Let’s take a look at some fundamentals of battery recycling and its current scenario.

How are Solar Batteries Recycled?

Solar batteries and regular batteries used in non-solar applications are not vastly different from each other. They share a lot of the same components. As such, recycling of solar batteries is similar to recycling regular batteries.

Batteries today can be broadly categorized under two main types - lead acid and lithium-ion. Lead acid is the more traditional type of batteries, and has been around for much longer. 

The recycling of lead-acid batteries is relatively simple. It consists of three main components:

  • Lead electrodes
  • Sulphuric acid electrolyte
  • Plastic casing

In most cases, 99% of the lead in a lead acid battery is separated and reused - an impressive portion. The sulphuric acid, if properly extracted, can be 100% recycled, and the plastics can also be completely reused for other purposes. The recycling process of such batteries comprises three steps:

  1. Opening
  2. Physical separation
  3. Material recovery 

The first two steps in this process are simpler. The material recovery part is often the trickiest as it involves some advanced extraction techniques. These include processes such as pyrometallurgy and hydrometallurgy - which use chemical reactions or high heat.

As for lithium batteries, things are a bit more complicated. A typical lithium-ion battery will consist of some of the following materials:

  • Lithium
  • Iron
  • Phosphate
  • Aluminium
  • Nickel
  • Cobalt
  • Manganese
  • Graphite
  • Carbon
  • Plastics
  • Other

As you can guess, efficient recycling of Li-ion batteries is difficult. Most of the lithium battery recycling today is a process called ‘shredding’, where the battery is shredded into many tiny pieces, and the resulting product is processed to extract some of the valuable metals.

In the above line, the words ‘some of the’ are most important - much of the mass of a lithium battery cannot be extracted. Combined with the relative lack of the recycling infrastructure for these batteries and the rapidly growing adoption, this becomes an important issue to deal with.

Solar Battery Recycling Current Scenario

The lead-acid battery was invented way back in 1860. Its recycling began around the 1920’s. Naturally, there is a strong recycling infrastructure already in place for lead-acid batteries. In the U.S., for instance, 99% of lead-acid batteries are recycled.

The case differs a little when speaking about lithium batteries. Lithium batteries are a relatively new phenomenon, but they are on their way to overthrowing the dominance of lead-acid batteries. Lithium batteries are far more energy dense, meaning they can pack much more storage capacity in the same weight. They also have lower maintenance and last much longer.

Needless to say, lithium battery production and adoption has increased significantly. Unfortunately, the recycling industry has not been able to catch up with this speed of adoption.

In contrast, the recycling levels of lithium batteries still lie at a measly 5%. Worldwide, it is estimated that by 2030, 11 million tons of lithium battery waste will be accumulated.

When you look at New Zealand’s stats, things get even more confounding. While there is no recent data available, a 2013 report states that only 0.2% of household batteries in NZ are recycled. 

One of the reasons for this is the lack of recycling facilities in NZ. There are 77 drop-off points for old batteries, but these are just collection points. The batteries collected here are shipped to Australia, Korea, or Japan for recycling. 

Benefits of Recycling Solar Batteries

There is a lot of discussion about solar panel recycling, but the topic of battery recycling seems to lag behind. 

It is a universal truth now that batteries cannot be and should not be sent to landfills. But let us elaborate on why recycling batteries is so essential.

Recycling solar batteries brings four main benefits:

1. Reduce hazardous waste

By preventing the batteries from going to landfills, we can avoid leaching of hazardous materials into the soil and groundwater. 

Many of the materials in a battery are poisonous to humans and other life, and should strictly be avoided from entering the natural cycles.

2. Reduce energy consumption and emissions

Several materials used in a battery are extracted from the Earth through complex processing. In line with the previous point, recycling and reusing materials from spent batteries also means not having to extract and sometimes manufacture new materials. 

This avoids a notable amount of energy consumption and subsequent carbon emissions. In the face of a worsening climate, this is an important thing.

3. Recover Critical Battery Materials

Considering the previous point, dumping reusable materials in landfills within a few years is not a great idea. With some processing, the materials can be restored to a state pure enough to build new batteries or other electronics from it.

This saves some of the hassle, cost, and time spent in the extraction of new materials from the Earth.

4. Job creating industry 
It is not just the environment that benefits from battery recycling, but also the economy. As the battery adoption and production increase, the recycling industry will also boom. This will call for more manpower and more local services - which will create a significant number of jobs.
Is Recycling Solar Batteries the Best Option?
You have probably heard about the ‘reduce-reuse-recycle’ philosophy. The best way to avoid environmental harm is to use less. In the case of batteries, as we shift from more harmful ways of energy consumption, using less would be difficult. 

However, there is another important philosophy that applies specifically to batteries, which we believe is the optimum way of minimizing battery waste and the resulting issues. It consists of four main options:

1. Upcycle or re-use

Like we said, reducing battery usage while also reducing conventional power generation is a tad bit difficult. It is like replacing potato chips with fruits but then also limiting the fruit consumption. We know it's an imperfect analogy, but you get the point.

The first option in batteries thus starts with reusing instead of reducing. Also known as upcycling, the battery goes to serve a different, less demanding purpose after it reaches its end of life for its original application.

2. Recycling the batteries

If solar batteries cannot be reused in other applications, they should then go to a recycling plant, where they will undergo processes outlined in the previous sections. Recycling the batteries will still emit some carbon and require some energy consumption, but it offers enough advantages to justify it.

3. Recover (for energy)

Once all the valuable materials from a battery are extracted, the remaining battery mass should still not go to a landfill. Some of the materials in the battery can be incinerated for energy generation.

4. Dispose

Finally, when every part of a battery is extracted and reused to the best possible extent, and what remains is a mass of things that cannot be further utilized - it is time for disposal. At this stage, the remaining, non-harmful substances in a battery can go to a waste disposal facility.

It is important to note that the first two steps in the above four steps are crucial, as they contribute to a circular economy. The last two steps should have to deal with the least possible weight of a battery, and should ideally even be avoided for as long as possible.

Final Thoughts

There is a massive amount of discussion everywhere about the rise of solar power and solar batteries. Unfortunately, the discussion about end-of-life treatment of solar batteries (and other equipment) does not come up very often.

In 2020, the global lithium battery production stood at 500 GWh, and is expected to grow to over 5,500 GWh by 2030. In the next few years, battery recycling infrastructure needs to grow in parallel with battery adoption. For this to happen, a couple of things need to be done. 

Firstly, a greater number of battery recycling centres need to pop up everywhere. Especially in New Zealand, there is a need to establish a domestic battery recycling infrastructure. 

Secondly, batteries should be designed for easy recycling. As batteries get cheaper, their recycling cost can be included in the sale price, like plastic bottles or milk cartons.

On an individual level, it is important to ensure your battery is preferably reused in another operation or at least recycled.

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