Big Difference in Recycling Lithium Batteries

Lithium batteries are showing up in everything from personal e-gear to communications backup systems to next-gen electric cars. Will they become the next e-waste? And do you know the important distinction between recycling Li and Li-ion technology?

The difference between Li (lithium) and Li-ion (lithium ion) batteries is important to sustainability-oriented users. Li-ion are the multi-cycle cells used in applications ranging from electric cars to CE gear with built-in rechargeable batteries. Plain Li batteries are the single-cycle disposable units used in e-gear accepting standard battery form factors. Li-ion are accepted by many battery recyclers, including The Green Box's standard package (see below) and Call2Recycle's free program for consumer battery recycling in US and Canada. Li-ion batteries are sometimes called 'rechargeable lithium'.

Toxco is the only company recycling Li batteries in North America, with an existing facility in British Columbia (Canada) and one planned for Ohio (USA). The latter is backed by a US$9.5 million grant from the US Department of Energy.

The Green Box is a program for shipping large quantities of batteries to recyclers. A standard Green Box holding 40 lbs of standard batteries costs $63, but a similar box for Li batteries costs $165 because "the cost for recycling this chemistry of battery is far greater than a standard alkaline or rechargeable battery." The biggest problem with Li batteries is not a more toxic chemistry, but the danger of fire during recycling. Toxco's BC facility has experienced such fires and its presentation (below) notes in-service explosion problems with the Lithium Metal Polymer batteries used in some communication infrastructures.

The lithium and other chemicals in Li and Li-ion batteries are of little value, so incentives must currently be provided for recycling. The nature of that incentive, where one exists at all, varies across political jurisdictions. Analysts predict that increased demand will drive up the price of recycled lithium, but there is little agreement on timeframe.

A white paper from Eaton characterizes Li-ion as one of "Four Promising Alternatives to the Lead Acid Battery" for next-gen data center UPS systems.

Toxco presentation on Li and Li-ion recycling.

Update 2012-04-09
The April issue of PC Today offers techniques for prolonging the life of li-ion batteries in laptops, smartphones, and similar devices.
- Reduce the maximum charge threshold for batteries in a unit mostly connected to AC.
- Don't do a full discharge too often. Recharging at ~50% is best.
- Avoid heat and humidity.
- Remove battery when storing a device. Store batteries at ~50% charge.