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Novel Ceramic/Metallic Materials May 2019 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Rory Marrast

Cathode-Recycling Developments

Why is this topic significant?

Novel recycling developments are enabling the economic recovery of metals that are essential to the production of lithium-ion batteries.

Description

Eutectic solvents consist of eutectic mixtures (mixtures that melt and freeze at temperatures lower than temperatures for the mixtures' individual constituents) of hydrogen-bond acceptor and hydrogen-bond donor compounds that are nontoxic and biodegradable and can function as reducing agents.

Researchers from Rice University in Houston, Texas, have developed a novel green method for recovering the nickel and cobalt metals that currently see use in the cathodes of lithium-ion batteries. The researchers are able to recover 90% of the cobalt by dissolving cathodes within the eutectic solvent (that consists of choline chloride and ethylene glycol) and utilizing electrodeposition to extrude the dissolved metal ions onto substrates. The process also retrieves 80% of the eutectic mixture for reuse and produces cobalt oxide—a common precursor to the production of lithium cobalt oxide (a cathode material).

Novel efforts to recycle batteries extend beyond university research groups. American Manganese (Surrey, Canada) recently reported independently verified results of the successful recycling of scrap lithium nickel manganese cobalt (NMC) and scrap lithium nickel cobalt aluminum (NCA) from battery-cathode materials in large quantities. Researchers from Kemetco Research, an independent laboratory in Canada, were able to separate the active cathode materials from battery scraps before using American Manganese's patented technology to extract the cathode metals in high yields. The researchers were able to recover 91.3% of the nickel present in the NMC scrap and 85.9% of the nickel present in the NCA scrap. They could also recover 94.8% of the cobalt from the NMC scrap and 86.6% of the cobalt from the NCA scrap. American Manganese aims to provide high-purity recycled battery materials to battery manufacturers—with the goal of developing a circular economy with its battery-recycling processes.

Implications

Novel processes that facilitate the economic recovery of precious metals in battery cathodes play an important role in developing alternatives to current cathode-recycling processes. Although laboratory results demonstrate cobalt-recovery rates exceeding 90%, the processes will require scale-up to pilot-study scales to assess the processes' economic viability and the processes' ability to compete with existing cathode-recycling methodologies—for example, pyrometallurgy (high-temperature extraction of pure metals) that requires operational temperatures of 1,400° Celsius and hydrometallurgy (solution-facilitated extraction of pure metals) that requires the use of corrosive acids.

Impacts/Disruptions

With the growth of consumer demand for electric vehicles and portable devices, the global demand for batteries is increasing. In 2017, the European Commission in Brussels, Belgium, classified cobalt as a critical raw material, because of its importance to the EU economy and the risk associated with its supply. Currently, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is responsible for 60% of world mining for cobalt. Cobalt is highly toxic, and its mining processes introduce cobalt and other heavy metals into the air and water systems of the DRC, presenting a range of health implications. Residents' pathology test results often display high levels of cobalt. New technological developments that can recycle commercially viable amounts of cobalt will likely reduce the demand for new cobalt from the DRC and redirect the demand for cobalt toward the collection of spent batteries for recycling.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Electric vehicles, mining, mobile phones, recycling

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Ceramic Electrochemical Cells

Why is this topic significant?

The reversible protonic-ceramic electrochemical cell is an emerging class of bifunctional cell that possesses both electricity-producing and electricity-storing capabilities. Advances in the capabilities of the cell may provide sufficient grounds for its commercialization.

Description

Researchers from the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado, developed a reversible protonic ceramic electrochemical cell (RPCEC) that employs yttrium and ytterbium co-doped barium cerate zirconate as the ceramic electrolyte and similar ceramics in the electrodes of the cell. The ceramic electrolyte facilitates rapid proton transfer across the cell to either electrode, depending on the cell's operational requirement. The cell's positive ceramic electrode demonstrates an ability to directly split water (from a source such as a turbine) in electricity-storage mode and can reform water in energy-production mode. The negative ceramic electrode will form hydrogen in electricity-storage mode and splits hydrogen in energy-production mode.

The researchers report that the RPCEC exhibits a high Faradaic efficiency (the efficiency of electrons that transfer to the system that facilitates an electrochemical reaction) of between 90% and 98% and high electricity-to-hydrogen energy conversion rates of 97% (energy storage) at operating temperatures up to 600° Celsius. The researchers attribute the RPCEC's high Faradaic efficiencies to the composition of its ceramic electrolytes, which minimize the presence of minority energy carriers.

Implications

Ceramic materials innately demonstrate chemical resistivity and commonly see use in materials in electrochemical systems such as proton-exchange-membrane fuel-cell (PEMFC) technology and solid-oxide fuel-cell (SOFC) technology, which RPCECs are based on.

The RPCEC's ceramic electrolyte demonstrates fast proton-transfer kinetics in low operating temperatures (400° to 600° Celsius) while maintaining efficiencies significantly higher than those of low-temperature PEMFCs and maintaining efficiencies similar to those of SOFCs, which typically require operational temperatures above 800° Celsius for its ceramic electrolyte to maintain ionic conductivity.

RPCECs also maintain operational efficacy during prolonged use. Prolonged operational study of RPCECs that appeared in the journal Nature demonstrate the RPCECs' superior coking (deposition of carbon-rich solids) resistance with coking rates as low as 1.5% per 1,000 hours of RPCECs' operation. The study also reveals the RPCECs' capability of resisting sulfur poisoning during prolonged use. Additionally, RPCECs provide a more versatile cell for electricity production. The RPCEC can produce electricity from multiple fuels, for example, for carbon dioxide, methane, and other hydrocarbons.

Impacts/Disruptions

The RPCEC is still an emerging technology. Developments of the RPCEC are likely to prove highly disruptive to the fuel-cell industry if RPCECs prove to generate electricity more efficiently, provide more functionality, and sell at commercially viable prices. Integrating the cell with existing renewable technologies, for example, using RPCECs with photovoltaic cells will likely propel the appeal of the fuel cell because it could provide a technology avenue to store excess energy from PV cells, as opposed to selling the electricity back to electricity providers.

Energy efficiency will be a major driver toward commercialization. RPCECs typically exhibit Faradaic conversions lower than 70%, which limits their ability to compete with alternative PEMFCs and SOFCs that consistently offer Faradaic efficiencies upward of 90%. Further RPCEC developments that demonstrate increasing Faradaic efficiencies of the cells (and increasing overall energy-conversion efficiencies) will prove pivotal to the ability of RPCECs to enhance the fuel-cell market.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years to 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Energy storage, energy production, renewable energy, electric vehicles

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: