Battery recycling: China is in first place

The higher the proportion of electric cars, the more batteries are potentially a
The higher the proportion of electric cars, the more batteries are potentially available for recycling. A team led by industrial chemist Stephan von Delft has researched when supply and demand for recyclable battery raw materials will be equal. Michael Marais on Unsplash

China covers its demand for lithium, cobalt and nickel for batteries by recycling, ahead of Europe and the USA.

With the increasing production of batteries for electric vehicles, the demand for the necessary raw materials is also rising. In view of the supply risks, environmental problems and precarious working conditions associated with the extraction and transportation of these raw materials, the recycling of battery materials has become an important topic in science, politics and industry. A team of researchers from science and the automotive and battery industry led by industrial chemist Stephan von Delft from the University of Münster has therefore investigated the question of when the demand for the three most important battery raw materials lithium, cobalt and nickel in Europe, the USA and China can be completely covered by recycling, i.e. when a complete circular economy will be possible in these regions. The conclusion: China will be the first to achieve this, followed by Europe and the USA.

The results in detail: In China, the demand for primary lithium, i.e. lithium obtained by mining, for electric cars can probably be covered by recycling from 2059, in Europe and the USA only after 2070. For cobalt, the demand in China is likely to be covered by recycling in 2045 at the earliest, in Europe in 2052 and in the USA only from 2056. The following applies to nickel: China will probably not be able to meet its demand through recycling until 2046 at the earliest, Europe until 2058 and the USA from 2064.

Previous research has investigated the supply of recycled battery raw materials and the demand for them. However, it has not yet been clear when full circularity will be reached, where supply and demand are equal ("equilibrium point"). The research team also investigated whether there are ways to reach the equilibrium point faster than predicted on the basis of current developments. "Yes, there are," emphasizes Stephan von Delft. "Our research shows that a faster electrification of the automotive industry, as is currently being discussed in the EU, plays a key role in this. The faster the automotive market is penetrated by electric vehicles, the faster batteries will be available in sufficient quantities for recycling." PhD student Jannis Wesselkämper adds: "The demand for raw materials could also be met much sooner through recycling by reducing battery sizes and avoiding the so-called second life of batteries - for example as stationary electricity storage for solar power."

The research team used a so-called dynamic material flow analysis to calculate future demand and the recyclable raw materials that will then be available. The team used data from current research work and market forecasts on the development of battery production and sales and the associated raw material requirements as a database.

Original publication

Jannis Wesselkämper, Laureen Dahrendorf, Lukas Mauler, Simon Lux, Stephan von Delft (2024): A battery value chain independent of primary raw materials: Towards circularity in China, Europe and the US. Resources, Conservation & Recycling Volume 201; DOI: 10.1016/j.resconrec.2023.107218