Posted: 14.02.2024 13:02:00

A battery of necessary ideas

Keeping up with the time: Belarusian scientists are already working on the environmental component of battery recycling

Many Belarusians have already appreciated the comfort and environmental friendliness of electric vehicles, thousands of which run around the country’s roads. Moreover, the President has set the task to launch mass production of our own electric vehicles by January 1st, 2025. Along with that, if we look into tomorrow, it becomes obvious that in the next five years, the necessity to recycle the main e-vehicle component, an electric accumulator or battery, becomes imminent. Therefore, they are already working on that at the Physical Technical Institute of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus.

Igor Smyaglikov, Deputy Director for Scientific Work      Aleksandr Kushner 

With micrometre precision

The laboratory section at the Laboratory of Plasma Physics on the research and development of technologies for processing lithium-ion cells of the Belarus NAS PhTI has been officially opened just recently. It can be stated, though, that work in this direction has been underway for a year already. It is during this time that scientists have been creating the section, thinking about the technology, and have been engaged in the selection and purchase of necessary equipment. 
“Today, the facility is equipped with almost everything required,” says Igor Smyaglikov, Deputy Director for Scientific Work at the Physical Technical Institute of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus. “We work according to the State Programme ‘High-End Technologies’ for 2021–2025, the sub-programme ‘Development of Electric Transport’. We have a task to develop a basic technology for processing lithium-ion cells using hydrometallurgy methods.
After the preparatory work, a section for the research and development of processing technologies has been opened this year. We work closely with JSC BelVTI, which collects waste from electronic equipment, including electric vehicle batteries, but does not have technologies for their disposal. The point is not just in neutralisation, but also in obtaining useful secondary material resources.”
Igor Smyaglikov demonstrates a number of batteries that are recycled at the site — 18650 lithium-ion cells and 
automotive ones. He explains that the recycling process is complex and multifaceted.
“First, batteries are sorted out, disassembled into cells. Each of them is checked for residual charge. If the charging capacity is high, such a cell can later be used for other purposes — for example, as part of stationary storage devices,” he clarifies. “Those batteries that contain a small amount of charge must be discharged. There are many ways to do this. We mainly use such techniques as soaking in electrolyte, and short-circuiting through a resistance unit.”
According to Igor Smyaglikov, after that the cell is carefully opened, since the process is rather dangerous. 
“In particular, the Institute has created a unique stand for automatic opening of 18650 cells. Subsequently, the system can be scaled up for industrial applications,” noted Andrey Drobov, Research fellow at the PhTI Laboratory of Plasma Physics and the developer of this device. 
Before our eyes, he puts an 18650 cell into the device and starts the stand. We can observe how the mechanism cuts the cell with micron precision and separates electrode components from the housing without damaging them. All this procedure takes up to one minute. 

Sergey Bagayev, Senior researcher: The basic battery recycling technology to be available by year end   Aleksandr Kushner 

Yevgeniya Klimova, Research fellow     ALEKSANDR KUSHNER 

Andrey Drobov, Research fellow       Aleksandr Kushner

Process fine-tuning

Yet, the recycling process does not end there. The battery is further disassembled into its components — the cathode and the anode in the form of electrode substances applied on aluminum and copper foil, a separator. Then, after special heat treatment, these materials are removed from the foil. According to the same principle, cells from electric vehicles are opened and separated, as Igor Smyaglikov shows. “For the industrial implementation of the technology, it is definitely easier to take battery parts and grind them into powder, which is then divided into metals and electrode
material by gas-dynamic and magnetic separation methods,” our interlocutor specifies. “After that, metals can be handed over to JSC Belvtorchermet. We, in turn, work with an electrode substance which contains the most valuable elements of batteries.”
After heat treatment in special furnaces, depending on the type of batteries, specialists get several types of solutions, which are then analysed and transferred to the dry phase. Thus, lithium, cobalt, nickel and manganese are obtained — metals of value from the point of view of secondary resources.
“Lithium carbonate, which is obtained as a result of multiphase processing, is a ready-made commercial product. It can be used in the future,” emphasises Igor Smyaglikov.
Nevertheless, it is still hard to envisage whether the technology will be profitable from an economic point of view, according to him. It is necessary to take into account not only the cost of processing, but also the costs of logistics, 
organisation of production, and capacity of the future processing enterprise.
The economic effect will also depend on the type of lithium-ion batteries to be recycled. And there are a lot of them — manganese, cobalt-nickel, lithium-iron-phosphate. It turns out that the higher the cobalt content is, the more efficient the processing will be.
By the way, scientists can determine the product value at different stages of processing already now by controlling the composition with the help of the analytical equipment available at the site. In the near future, a plasma spectrophotometer will appear here, which will allow determining lithium concentration in solutions. 

At the Physical Technical Institute of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus: Checking the battery charge     Aleksandr Kushner  

Accumulator battery assembly     Vitali Pivovarchik 

Development of components for Belarusian electric vehicle industry   Aleksei Stolyarov 

A unique technique

Six people will work at this section, as Alexander Parshuto, Head of Laboratory of Plasma Physics, informed. 
According to him, each stage needs its own specialist. In general, the technology of battery recycling is already clear, just some nuances should be refined, in the opinion of Sergey Bagayev, Senior researcher at the laboratory, “The basic technology will be available before the end of the year. It is necessary to understand that we are not talking about industrial scale yet. It will take us two to three years to reach the industrial technology. Our work has already
attracted the interest of the National Academy of Sciences, JSC BelVTI, ecologists, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection.”
As the Deputy Director for Scientific Work of the PhTI underlines, “There are still a number of issues that need to be finalised, including legal issues.”
Thus, it is required to improve the legislation regarding the collection, transportation and storage of spent lithium-ion batteries.
“So far, we have not dealt with the processing of this type of waste in the country,” he explains. “We comply with GOST and San-PiN standards, which are used for alkaline batteries and other types of waste. Still, these are substances of a different type. We are working in this direction, too.”
“There are undoubtedly similar recycling technologies in the world. Yet, each state tries to come up with a solution focused on its product and its consumer. And the Belarusian technology is its own, unique,” emphasises Alexander Parshuto.
“We were tasked with finding the most optimal solution for Belarus. While some countries are focused on producing hydroxides and various salts, we are more interested in obtaining metals,” he comments. “This is a finished product that can subsequently be used as a catalyst, additives in alloys, for powder metallurgy, as well as for the production of paints, composites, glasses, even food additives. This is relevant for Belarus.”


Aleksandr Kulevskiy 

By Vera Arteaga