Quantity scenarios of lithium-ion batteries for recycling and their origin

Recycling of lithium-ion batteries will increase strongly in Europe

by Dr. Thomas Schmaltz /

Currently, about 50 kilotons of spent batteries are recycled annually in Europe. The quantity of batteries to be recycled will increase continuously in the coming years - and the origin of these batteries will also change.

According to calculations by Fraunhofer ISI, the amount of batteries to be recycled in Europe will reach 420 kilotons in 2030 (scenario range 200-800 kt) and 2100 kilotons in 2040 (scenario range 1100-3300 kt) (Figure 1a).

In 2020, the majority of spent batteries still came from the consumer sector, e.g. from cell phones or laptops (Figure 1b). Today, the largest share of battery material to be recycled comes from battery production scrap.  This trend will continue in the coming years, so that this area will be the largest source for recycling in the medium term.

Only in the longer term, from around 2035, when a larger number of automotive batteries will have reached their end of life, will these end-of-life batteries from the passenger car sector represent the largest share.

© Fraunhofer ISI
Figure 1: (a) Recycled volumes of end-of-life lithium-ion batteries in the EU27, UK, Norway and Switzerland and (b) where they originate from.

Recyclates alone cannot meet resource needs for battery production

Today's lithium-ion batteries contain numerous valuable and sometimes critical materials that make recycling particularly attractive. These include cobalt, nickel, lithium, copper and aluminium. In terms of quantity, aluminium, nickel and copper represent the largest share (Figure 2a).

In terms of volume, cobalt and lithium have smaller shares, but due to their high prices, they are significant in terms of value (Figure 2b). The price of lithium and cobalt in particular has increased enormously in the past two years, which has reinforced this picture.

© Fraunhofer ISI
Figure 2: (a) Quantities of various valuable material components in end-of-life lithium-ion batteries, as well as (b) their material values according to mean raw material prices of the years 2021/22.

However, if we compare the quantities of materials that can be recycled from end-of-life batteries with the demand for battery materials for cell production - which is currently in a phase of extreme market ramp-up - we have to conclude that recyclates will only be able to provide a small proportion of the battery materials required in the medium term. In 2040, for example, according to our calculations, 40 percent of the cobalt and more than 15 percent of the lithium, nickel and copper required for cell production could be covered.

Thus, battery recycling makes it possible to reduce dependence on battery material imports to some extent, in the medium term, and to make a significant contribution to the supply of the required materials, in the long term.

How the EU wants to regulate battery recycling

Crucial to large-scale battery recycling is the regulatory framework from the political side. In the EU, the EU Commission presented a proposal for a battery regulation in 2020, to which the EU Parliament responded with numerous demands for adjustments and, in some cases, tightening. In December 2022, the European Parliament and the Council were now able to reach a preliminary political agreement, so that the regulation will come into force in the next few years.

This new regulation provides for the obligation to recycle batteries. Furthermore, it prescribes minimum recycling rates for the individual battery materials, which will be further tightened over time. It also prescribes minimum values for the use of recyclates in the production of new batteries.

In addition to technical improvements, a major challenge in the future will be to secure access to end-of-life batteries (including exported used cars) to ensure access to recyclates. Collection networks and the corresponding logistics for this must be established. 

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