Environmental Sustainability of Black Mass Production in Lithium-lon Battery Recycling

Main Presenter:    Christine Prado Görlach 

Co-Authors:   Chanchan Li     Ronja Wagner-Wenz      Tobias Necke      Steffi Weyand                              

With the increasing demand for Lithium-ion batteries (LIB) driven by the energy transition and the pursuit of a circular economy, the relevance of battery recycling is underscored. The growing importance arises from the utilization of critical resources in the LIB production. In this context, the recovery of the precursor elements for the cathode active material, hence the recovery of low-contaminated black mass from end-of-life (EoL) LIB emerges as a key aspect of LIB recycling. While LIB recycling technologies are already employed in industrial processes, there remains considerable potential for optimization in terms of efficiency, yield rate, and cost-effectiveness. In addition to the challenges associated with optimizing technical and economic aspects, assessing the ecological sustainability of emerging process routes becomes imperative to identify hotspots and refine processes from an ecological point of view. Consequently, conducting life cycle assessment (LCA) of environmental
impacts at the outset becomes a relevant aspect of process development.
Therefore, in our work, we conducted an LCA within the project “HydroLIBRec”, in which experts from several institutions are developing complete and optimized process chains for effective, economically viable, environmentally friendly and function-preserving LIB recycling using EoL LIB cells. Our LCA focused on evaluating the environmental sustainability of the pre-treatment stages leading to the production of black mass. Six process routes were modeled using primary laboratory data, consisting of mechanical pre-treatment by cutting the battery cells, a pyrolysis or no pre-treatment, a subsequent electrohydraulic fragmentation (EHF), and a separation unit employing a combination of skimming and sieving mechanisms. We assessed the environmental impacts of each process route according to ISO 14040/14044 using the EF 3.0 method (adapted).

Based on the evaluation, optimization potentials were identified and the routes were compared to each other. The results indicate that a mechanical pre-treatment by cutting the cells can accelerate the EHF of battery cells, resulting in environmental benefits. In contrast, thermal pre-processing exhibits a higher environmental footprint and influences the EHF process negatively, resulting in a higher environment impact for the entire process route. However, pyrolyzing the recovered black mass creates favorable conditions for subsequent chemical treatment processes, allowing greater effectiveness and overall recovery of the desired materials. This should not be neglected in the comprehensive evaluation of the compared routes.

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