The Department of Energy wants comments on how to recycle lithium-ion batteries

The Department of Energy just took a first step toward launching new lithium-ion battery recycling programs in the US. Yesterday it issued a Request for Information (RFI) to solicit public input on how to spend $335 million on federal investments for battery recycling that were included in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act passed last year.

Lithium-ion batteries used to power electric vehicles and store renewable electricity are an important component to a clean energy economy. Recycling could relieve looming pressure on the materials needed to meet growing demand for those technologies, especially as the Biden administration tries to keep the US on its toes.

“Battery recycling not only removes harmful waste from our environment; it also strengthens domestic manufacturing by putting used materials back into the supply chain,” USA. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said in an Aug. 29 press release.

In all, the bipartisan infrastructure bill invests more than $7 billion over five years to build a supply chain for household batteries. That includes $335 million for lithium-ion battery recycling programs. The Department of Energy (DOE) issued the Request for Information to Help Guide the Implementation of those Recycling Programs and Plans for public comment through October 14.

The programs are supposed to improve the process of collecting end-of-life batteries and collecting valuable materials from them. The programs also aim to minimize the environmental risks of dumping and recycling used batteries, while making battery cycling more popular and developing a new workforce for the recycling industry.

The funding will also go towards finding a second life for old electric vehicle batteries. An EV’s battery could be replaced once it has lost about 20 percent of its capacity. But that means it could have up to 80 percent of its capacity for other uses. The battery could be combined with solar panels, for example, to retain excess energy absorbed during the day so that clean electricity is available at night. Some car companies, including Nissan, are investigating how to reuse electric vehicle batteries to store renewable energy for power grids.

Meanwhile, policymakers are scrambling to figure out how the nation will have enough batteries on hand to meet its climate goals. To reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Biden wants the energy sector to run entirely on carbon-free electricity by 2035, which will be virtually impossible without much more energy storage from batteries. Biden also issued an executive order last year calling for half of all new vehicle sales in the US to be hybrid or electric vehicles by the end of the decade. And California, one of the world’s largest car markets, set new rules last week to phase out gas-guzzling cars in favor of plug-in hybrid and battery electric vehicles by 2035.

Similar changes are needed around the world to avoid the worst effects of climate change, such as much more severe storms, droughts and heat waves. Greenhouse gas pollution must fall to net zero around 2050 to meet the goals set out in the Paris climate agreement aimed at ensuring a more livable future. But reaching those goals would require six times more critical minerals in 2040 than were produced in 2021, according to an analysis by the International Energy Agency.

That has already triggered another conundrum: how to satisfy the growing hunger for battery materials without harming the environment and communities near the mines. Historically, the extraction of elements used in batteries such as nickel and cobalt has been concentrated in a handful of regions, leaving markets for these materials vulnerable to labor and environmental abuses and supply chain crises.

To reduce US dependence on minerals mined in those regions, the DOE last year published a “national plan” to make lithium-ion batteries. And the Biden administration invoked the Defense Production Act in March to speed the extraction and processing of materials within the nation’s borders. But that push for home mining has environmental groups and Native American tribes concerned about the damage it could do to the home.

If the US prioritizes battery recycling, rather than relying so heavily on extracting new materials, it could help reduce many of those problems.

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