- Zheng Chen, a 31-year-old assistant professor at the University of California, San Diego, has developed a way to recycle lithium-ion batteries, as reported by The San Diego Union-Tribune. The method also works with lithium cobalt oxide, a common component of smartphones and other electronics.
- The study's abstract, published in Green Chemistry, says the recycling method (which involves pressurizing degraded particles and then heat-treating them in a process called "annealing") is non-destructive, environmentally friendly and can work with batteries in different stages of degradation.
- Chen told The Union-Tribune he was surprised the method worked so well, without losing any capacity in the battery. The team has filed for a provisional U.S. Patent and is planning to work with a battery company in China.
Batteries pose a safety risk for waste collectors and MRF operators, since they can be damaged and create fires. A dedicated system for recycling batteries would not only have the potential to cut down on manufacturing and mining costs, but could also improve safety conditions for recyclers.
The challenge, of course, is bringing the technology to a viable scale. Right now, the recycling process has only been demonstrated in a laboratory setting and takes about 10 hours, not exactly conducive for commercial use. But it is a step, and Chen told The Spokesman-Review he thinks the commercial applications are "huge" and that the team wants to scale up.
And it could be a valuable endeavor. According to the United Nations, the problem of electronic waste is only going to continue to grow. And, while many electronic devices contain relatively small batteries, the expected rise of electronic vehicles will bring with it larger batteries that would require more intensive handling.
China has already taken steps to put the responsibility for those batteries in the hands of car manufacturers, a form of extended producer responsibility that it would not be surprising to see others imitate. Currently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency offers only limited guidance on battery recycling.