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Examining different recycling processes for lithium-ion batteries


Finding scalable lithium-ion battery recycling processes is important as gigawatt hours of batteries are deployed in electric vehicles. Governing bodies have taken notice and have begun to enact recycling targets. While several battery recycling processes exist, the greenhouse gas emissions impacts and economic prospects of these processes differ, and could vary by specific battery chemistry. Here we use an attributional life-cycle analysis, and process-based cost models, to examine the greenhouse gas emissions, energy inputs and costs associated with producing and recycling lithium-ion cells with three common cathode chemistries: lithium nickel manganese cobalt oxide (NMC-622), lithium nickel cobalt aluminium oxide and lithium iron phosphate. We compare three recycling processes: pyrometallurgical and hydrometallurgical recycling processes, which reduce cells to elemental products, and direct cathode recycling, which recovers and reconditions ceramic powder cathode material for use in subsequent batteries—retaining a substantial fraction of the energy embodied in the material from their primal manufacturing process. While pyrometallurgical and hydrometallurgical processes do not significantly reduce life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions, direct cathode recycling has the potential to reduce emissions and be economically competitive. Recycling policies should incentivize battery collection and emissions reductions through energetically efficient recycling processes.

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Fig. 1: Manufacturing cost and CO2e emissions for NMC cylindrical cells.
Fig. 2: Cell manufacturing emissions.
Fig. 3: Battery recycling emissions.
Fig. 4: Avoided emissions of direct cathode recycling with different cathode yield rates.
Fig. 5: Relithiation costs.

Code availability

Sample MATLAB code for the recycling model described here is available at Sample calculations for the process-based cost model of cathode manufacturing are available in the Supplementary Information files.

Data availability

The authors declare that the data used as model inputs supporting the findings of this study are available within the paper and its Supplementary Information files. Additional questions about the data supporting the findings of this study can be directed to the corresponding author.


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The authors thank C. Samaras, M. Mauter and J. Michalek for discussions on life-cycle analysis and the framing of the research findings. This material is based on work supported by the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship under grant number DGE 1252522. Any opinions, findings, conclusions and recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Author information




R.E.C. designed the research with input from J.F.W. R.E.C. conducted the majority of the analysis and wrote most of the paper. J.F.W. made significant contributions to the analysis and editing of the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to J. F. Whitacre.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figures 1–32, Supplementary Tables 1–30, Supplementary References 1–19

Supplementary Dataset 1

Cathode cost model — spreadsheet showing process-based cost model calculations for cathode material manufacturing and lithiation of NMC, NCA and LFP cathodes.

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Ciez, R.E., Whitacre, J.F. Examining different recycling processes for lithium-ion batteries. Nat Sustain 2, 148–156 (2019).

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