Kevin Popper, Julia Navarro, Amelia Lanfrankie, and Felipe Caro

Demand for electric vehicles has risen dramatically alongside consumer concerns about greenhouse gas emissions. Correspondingly, demand for lithium- batteries has also increased and is expected to continue increasing – the lithium- market is thought to have a CAGR of 14%, with the transport sector accounting for 60% of the market by 2025.[1] Electric vehicle driven demand for lithium-ion battery raw materials such as cobalt and copper is expected to increase 10x by 2026.[2]



Image source: “Electric Vehicle Outlook 2018 | Bloomberg New Energy Finance.” Bloomberg NEF, 2018,

Increasing demand for these raw materials is becoming a costly problem as certain materials are relatively scarce. Cobalt, a critical component in lithium ion batteries, has had prices triple since 2016.[3] The search for more raw materials has suppliers to source irresponsibly from unstable emerging markets. For example, over 60% of cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which uses the labor of tens of thousands of children as young as four old in its mines.[4]


These explicit and societal costs can be mitigated through more responsible lithium-ion battery recycling practices. Current recycling rates in the United States are remarkably low – only 5% of batteries are recycled and only 35% of the materials from these batteries can be recovered to be used.[5] Both current most common recycling practices pyrometallurgical and hydrometallurgical are relatively inefficient, contributing to low materials recovery rates. Pyrometallurgical recycling involves incinerating whole/partially processed batteries and only several metals – cobalt, nickel, copper, and iron – are recovered for reuse.[6] Hydrometallurgical recycling can additionally recover lithium, manganese and aluminum, but they are in lower in value.[7] The process also produces a good deal of waste water.


Umicore Val’Eas Pyrometallurgical + Hydrometallurgical Process


Image source: ResearchGate. Umicore Battery Recycling Process,


A proposed solution is to invest in a process called direct physical separation. Direct physical separation is different, because it allows metal oxides in cathodes and processed graphite materials in anodes to be directly recovered in their original battery-grade state – creating the for direct reuse with minimal additional processing. It is currently in the lab/demonstration phase but has the to offer attractive economics with scale as the process has low variable costs – it requires limited fuel and additional processing materials (like leaching acids). However, direct physical separation requires all batteries to be of the same type.


Direct Physical Separation Recycling Process
















Image source: ResearchGate. Toxco Recycling Process,

Several recycling infrastructure changes would have to be implemented to enable direct physical separation – a significant one is batteries with their component parts to allow sorting by battery type.[8] Currently lithium-ion batteries are nearly indistinguishable and blending of the component materials of different batteries can render the materials useless. This labeling would then need to be accompanied by sorting practices to direct different battery types into the proper physical separation process. These changes would allow materials that would have been irrecoverable using pyrometallurgical or hydrometallurgical processes (e.g. aluminum) to be recycled into new batteries.


Data was drawn from several sources to estimate the value that could be generated by direct physical separation (see below). Our estimate compared the value of potentially recovered materials for the dominant recycling process, the Umicore Val’Eas pyrometallurgical process, to direct physical recycling process. We did not model costs for these competing processes due to large uncertainties. As such, our cost savings estimate only focused on differences in recovered material value from the time period of 2026 to 2040. We estimate the cumulative cost savings from direct physical recycling (enabled via battery labeling) is $212 billion from 2026-2040, with $43 billion in savings occurring in 2040 alone. Hence, there is significant value in the supply for batteries waiting to be unlocked.


Data and assumptions used in savings calculation:


  1. Battery consumption/availability: estimates based projected global battery consumption from BNEF through 2030
  2. Battery lifetime: assumed 8 years in operation before entering recycling stream
  3. Material composition estimates: estimates based on 2025 share of market for each battery chemistry based on McKinsey forecasts
  4. Material recovery rates: estimates based on research of Linda Gaines and publicly available ReCell model – both by Argonne National Labs
  5. Material value: estimates based on 2018 ReCell model inputs and LME pricing



[1] “Lithium-ion batteries: Market development and the impact on raw materials,” Roskill, 2017,

[2] “Electric Vehicle Outlook 2018 | Bloomberg New Energy Finance.” Bloomberg NEF, 2018,

[3] “LME COBALT, Historical Prices Graph,” The London Metal Exchange, Jan. 26, 2018,

[4] “The Toll of the Cobalt Mining Industry on Health and the Environment.” CBS News, CBS Interactive, 6 Mar. 2018,

[5] “IN DEPTH: Lithium Battery Recycling – The Clean Energy Clean Up.” « Landfill « Waste Management World, 27 Apr. 2018,

[6] “Lithium Ion Battery Recycling: Using Lifecycle Analysis to Avoid Roadblocks,” Argonne National Laboratory.

[7]  “Lithium Ion Battery Recycling: Using Lifecycle Analysis to Avoid Roadblocks,” Argonne National Laboratory.

[8] “The future of automotive lithium-ion battery recycling: Charting a sustainable course,” Sustainable Materials and Technologies.

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