Examining the positives of battery ‘track-and-trace’

Never mind Covid passports. Would manufacturers benefit from comprehensive digital tagging and identification of lithium-ion batteries? Fleur Doidge reports.

While track-and-trace systems for Covid-19 have met with mixed results in many countries, applying a similar idea to lithium-ion batteries (LiBs) could help meet soaring demand in the automotive industry.

Ilias Belharouak, Section Head for Electrification at US Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), suggests a type of battery identity global passport (BIGP) could help close the LiB waste loop from manufacturing cradle to recycling gate.

“Everyone involved in the battery value chain will benefit,” Ilias says. “Less strain on mining and refining, battery manufacturers can secure materials feedstocks, recyclers will have less impact on the environment, and the public will see battery cost reduction.”

ORNL’s research review concludes that, for example, a scannable QR code or smart RFID tag could help identify and track materials, including cobalt and lithium itself – also reducing extraction of rare-earth minerals while assisting transport decarbonisation in the move to electric vehicles (EVs).

Dr Doron Myersdorf, Chief Executive of EV technology developer StoreDot, confirms BIGPs could be useful, although the concept is not without its difficulties – especially around global regulation and cooperation.

“If we can actually implement a system like that, passed on to the entire battery ecosystem from the raw materials to the battery recycling, with that traceability, it will be a very big thing for the planet and for the industry as a whole,” Doron confirms.

Thinking differently – and globally

“The global community needs to start thinking differently about the future,” Doron says. “What we’ve been doing so far, especially when it comes to recycling and the environment, has not been very productive, successful or efficient from the standpoint of the planet and goals of zero emissions.”

BIGPs may even blaze a trail for thinking about the environment that benefits next generations. Today’s thousands of battery manufacturers mostly have little notion of where their materials came from or how they have been extracted, Doron says.

A passport system could reduce global corruption and bribery, child labour and environmental destruction, even as demand for LiBs soars, he notes. “Today, it’s like the wild West; people are exploited in the process. Then once you produce, you don’t know where it’s flowing, or how safe it is; you don’t know how many charge discharge cycles you’ve had or second-life applications.”

LiBs today can be buried ‘somewhere in a desert’, with future generations drinking water drawn from ground contaminated with heavy metals – somewhat countering the hard work and innovation going into developing greener energy and transport methods in the first place, he points out.

Similar concepts such as food labelling might not have delivered full transparency on product origins to consumers so far. On the other hand, Intel processor parts embedded in laptops can already be traced, providing information on specific batches, quality and safety issues, pricing of batches, and date of production.

BIGPs will be inconvenient, costly, and bureaucratic, requiring regulatory support, and more standardisation across the industry – similar to what has been happening in semiconductor production – would also be beneficial.

That said, BIGPs are still a ‘smart and efficient’ step towards a sustainable future, Doron says, while LiB data fed into artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning applications could also improve visibility and efficiencies in logistics and management of production across supply chains.

Working together on an implementation roadmap

Manufacturers and end users should work together to achieve key goals that ensure success. “By basically saying, ‘this is how we want this to happen within 5-10 years’ (and pushing for that) we can build a roadmap of implementation,” Doron says.

Alan Colledge, Senior Manager of Hazardous Services at waste and resource manager at Cawleys, says various identification methods have been floated for tracking different types of LiBs. In his view, the concept can have value, especially when it comes to reuse.

Manufacturers incrementally improve and alter their battery designs, so identification is needed. A Nissan Leaf, for example, has gone through several generations — but that level of identification can be relatively straightforward.

Alan Colledge Senior Manager of Hazardous Services at waste and resource manager, Cawley
Alan Colledge, Senior Manager of Hazardous Services at waste and resource manager, Cawleys: Image courtesy of Cawleys

“Opening up and seeing an electronic tag or some kind of indication as to what it is, where it’s come from, what age, what is the state of charge, and all that kind of stuff can be less valuable: a Tesla battery is a Tesla battery, and we ask the question before we pick it up,” he says.

A BIGP that’s more intelligent, involving RFID chips or smart sensors that can interface with a battery management system throughout its lifetime, could be much more useful, Alan agrees.

Materials separation and recycling on the horizon

Cawleys has a UK commercial offering for EV battery recycling and disposal and is also an authorised exporter. Its workshop at Luton head office has been designed and built specifically for LiBs with fully insulated tooling and highvoltage engineering capabilities.

“It’s a bit of an exciting time because we’re going through the motions of doing the materials separation – this’ll be one of the first [initiatives] of its kind in the UK,” Alan says. Cawleys has moved on from its early commercial relationships to research and development firms doing the testing in factories and is now dealing increasingly with OEMs and contracts with other large companies, including nationwide automotive dealer networks receiving batteries that need to be collected.

“There’s a lot of development at the moment,” Colledge says. “We have only been able to go as fast as the sort of batteries that we’re collecting; we’re not dealing with a mountain of thousands of batteries yet.”

When those mountains appear, the volumes will be balanced against the resource and the recycling capabilities and conversations will begin to change, he predicts. The company is investing now, anticipating profitable and sustainable economies of scale as the demand for replacement EV LiBs expands.

“Some of the largest German manufacturers of cars that we support, might have only 40 batteries in the country right now to make up. Which gives you an idea,” Alan says. “But the cars are out there and even the waste side of things aren’t likely to reach the volumes needed for about five years. Then earlier types of EV Vauxhall and Prius, Tesla Model S will be around 11 or 12 years old.”

The shredding process is ‘fraught with dangers’ requiring full discharge beforehand and there has been no metallurgical treatment process in the UK. One difficulty is that jurisdictions differ on what is hazardous in the first place – the ‘science behind it’ isn’t great, Alan says.

That said, in the next three to six months Cawleys expects to begin ‘thoroughly’ involving itself in the circular economy, in time to deliver marketable materials to the gigafactories expected to go into full production serving the EV market in the next five to ten years, he adds.

EVs and gigafactories set to change the future

Smaller, portable LiBs are a different story: managing several thousand iPhone batteries, for example, can be “impractical” and setting up waste processing facilities that include furnaces for burning chemical waste from batteries is controversial, he adds.

“The waste industry has few options and this is where you start seeing things being exported,” Alan says. “But the demand for materials is likely to have a sea change once we have manufacturing kick in with UK sites bought for about four giga factories.”

Lars Carlstrom is Founder and Chief Executive Officer at Italvolt, which is building a 45 GWh battery giga factory and research centre near Turin, Italy. Phase one of the project, aimed ultimately at supplying greener batteries to Europe’s EV market, is set for completion in 2024.

Fully certifying an entire supply chain as well as the materials used, production process and afterlife presents considerable challenges, Lars agrees. However, he says almost complete recycling of LiB materials is possible.

“With the help of a battery passport, you can actually keep these things under control and by following the battery in a more precise way you know exactly where you are with it,” he says. “This is the tricky part in all these industries.”

But he suggests it might be more sustainable to localise the supply chain as much as possible, also benefiting local economies and creating jobs. When manufacturers must ship their batteries from Asia to Europe, that massively impacts the environment all by itself and in his view, batteries from Asia should have a ‘green tax’ of sorts levied.

Then there are regulatory and institutional difficulties; how can you know BIGP information is actually valid, whether certification is a public or private sector initiative? “You need to bring back the entire supply chain close to where the industry is,” Lars says. “You have no control of how things are. And the supply chain side will probably come up with valid documents saying is great but it’s hard to be sure. Mostly we need to have a control system for really checking it out.”

Manufacturers and recyclers to play key roles

Carlstrom concedes that currently a global supply chain is essential, particularly for materials including certain minerals. However, much closer attention – and localisation – can still be achieved at the production level.

For him, battery passports are a step in the right direction but significant challenges remain. “I think it’s a good intention, at least, but there’s still a lot of work to do to make them valid and recognised and so on,” he says.


Standardised fingerprints for every manufactured battery aligns with the battery passport concept Image courtesy of StoreDot
Standardised fingerprints for every manufactured battery aligns with the battery passport concept: Image courtesy of StoreDot

“It’s important to recognise the circular economy as a safeguard of the whole system.” ORNL’s Belharouak says BIGPs can deliver a standardised fingerprint for “each and every” battery manufactured worldwide also aligning with the GBA’s battery passport concept, especially around battery supply chain resilience. “It’s a practical solution to sorting all types of LiBs based on the chemistry these batteries contain,” Belharouak maintains.

“As an example, the chemistry and materials information embedded in the BIGP database will allow recyclers to distinguish between those batteries that contain cobalt, how much of it, where it came from, et cetera.”

This level of technoeconomic analysis can give recyclers much better information to work with, including more detail when sorting end-of-life battery feedstock. This should deliver confidence around the costs of and revenues achievable from a move away from current industrial recycling through pyrometallurgical and hydrometallurgical processes to direct recycling of LiBs, which is currently only at laboratory scale.

However, it all depends on acceptance and implementation of the solution by battery manufacturers, Lars says. “The big challenge is related to implementation. The battery community, especially the manufacturers and recyclers, will need to accept and move towards adoption of this concept. In a few years we expect there to be stockpiles of millions of tons of batteries ready for recycling,” he says.

“Let us take inspiration from what humanity did in the recycling of lead acid batteries. Getting to 80-90% recycling of lead acid batteries took many years and a lot of determination. Within this new context, measures such as LiB recycling are getting renewed attention.”

Key takeaways

The stakes are rising fast with the increasing popularity of LIBs, especially in automotive

  • Economic and environmental imperatives are driving attempts to maximise the useful lifecycle of lithium-ion batteries (LIBs)
  • A global battery identity passport for LIBs could help alleviate key climate and CSR issues while meeting commercial pressures (such as the rising cost of lithium, need for product quality and consistency)
  • Devising and implementing a global system that closes the loop on LIB manufacture and recycling presents multiple challenges – as do all chosen methods of recycling
  • However, a global battery identification system will also likely raise costs for industry, which must be passed on to the end use

 

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