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Colorado researchers invent eco-friendly way to recycle lithium ion batteries

The batteries are almost everywhere. They are in your smartphones, tablets, watches, and, of course, electric vehicles. Disposing of them is not simple.

GOLDEN, Colo. — Over the next decade, the number of electric vehicles out on the roads will increase dramatically.

Which is why Matthew Keyser and a team of researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden are working on better ways to recycle their batteries.

Keyser is an electric chemical energy storage group manager.

"Bloomberg estimates by 2030 we will need two terawatt hours of lithium ion battery storage. 90% of that is going to go to transportation," Keyser said. 

Simply put, that's a lot of lithium batteries. The question many have is where will all those used batteries end up?

"98% of lead acid batteries are recycled," Keyser pointed out. "However with lithium ion batteries at the moment, I would say it's only like 5% to 10%." 

Keyser's goal is to get that percentage up to 98% or 99%. 

"We don't have the space in the landfills for all the lithium ion batteries that are going to be produced, but also we don't want to have additional mining operations to be able to get new copper, new aluminum, new transition metals," Keyser said.

So Keyser and his team have found a way to recycle lithium ion batteries in a more environmentally friendly way than some of the methods.

The process is called direct recycling.

"What we're trying to do is we're trying to take the positive active material within a battery and then just recover that upcycle it and reuse it," Keyser explained.

Instead of separating out all the metals, which is quite energy intensive, Keyser's method keeps the main part of the battery intact and just basically repurposes it.

No landfill. No extra mining for metals. Just fixing and re-using.

Right now, only about 5% of the lithium ion batteries are recycled through direct recycling. But with its environmental benefits, the practice is growing.

Keyser and his team are also working on ways to recover all the battery's materials, so they can all be re-used instead of going to waste in the near future.

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