Skip to main content






lithion logo


Thanks to an innovation by a Quebec consortium, the lithium-ion batteries that power electric cars can be recycled ad infinitum.

Three years ago, Benoit Couture was thinking of buying an electric car. But there was one argument holding back this engineer and president of Montreal engineering firm Seneca: the lack of outlets for lithium-ion batteries at the end of their life. No facility in Quebec recycles these products, considered hazardous in Canada. "I was wondering whether I'd really be doing the right thing [by giving up my gasoline-powered car]," he says.

Not a stupid question. Because even if electric cars don't emit greenhouse gases (GHGs) when they're running, their production generates more than their combustion-engine cousins. In fact, the electric car begins to have a positive impact on the climate after covering a distance of 32,000 km, analyzed researchers at Polytechnique Montréal's International Reference Centre for the Life Cycle of Products, Processes and Services (CIRAIG).

One of the culprits: the production of the lithium-ion battery, which requires minerals - , etc. - that are generally extracted and refined in the atmosphere. - generally extracted and refined on the other side of the world, with electricity often generated from coal or other fossil fuels.

Here we go!

As one is never better served than by oneself, Seneca, which specializes in the design of production lines for factories, launched a project of its own in 2017 to recycle lithium-ion battery components. To achieve this, Benoit Couture knocked on the door of the Centre d'études des procédés chimiques du Québec (CEPROCQ), a college technology transfer center affiliated with Collège de Maisonneuve. The aim: to develop a process for recycling all types of lithium-ion batteries.

Two partners were also involved: Appel à Recycler, a non-profit organization that recovers household batteries, and Hydro-Québec's Centre d'excellence en électrification des transports et en stockage d'énergie. Tadam, the Recyclage Lithion consortium was born!

Their project: to build a pilot plant in Quebec over the next year, capable of recycling 200 metric tons of lithium-ion batteries per year, the equivalent of 300 to 650 electric car batteries. It will also be able to recycle batteries from telephones, laptops and drills. It's a good thing that, last fall, this estimated $12 million project received the funding it needed to go ahead, including a $3.8 million grant from Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC).

Piece of cake!

 The process developed by Recyclage Lithion is called "hydrometallurgy". What does it involve? "We take a cake, take it apart, then give the baker sugar, vanilla, flour, milk and eggs, so that he can remake the recipe to his liking," explains Benoit Couture.

In short, the first step is to separate the copper, aluminum, plastic and graphite. Next, metals and chemical compounds are removed and purified using acids and solvents. The result? Cobalt, nickel hydroxide or lithium carbonate powders to meet the needs of new battery manufacturers. "We manage to recycle 95% of the constituents," says Benoit Couture.

To his knowledge, his process is unique in the world. As it allows us to "skip the step" of mining, it considerably reduces the battery's carbon footprint, believes the engineer, especially as it consumes very little electricity. A European Environment Agency report published in 2018 cited studies suggesting that recycling all battery materials could halve GHG emissions compared to producing new batteries.

Resale, but at what price?

Removing metals from old lithium-ion batteries and recycling them is all very well. But what happens to them once they're resold? "If we find a local [battery] manufacturer, there's no problem. If they're going to be shipped back to Asia, we're back to the problem of transport, maintenance and the amount of GHGs that will be generated," explains Mickaël Dollé, a professor in the Department of Chemistry at the Université de Montréal.

To maximize GHG reduction throughout the recycling chain, the researcher is working on a different hydrometallurgy process that would recover another specific component of the lithium-ion battery. "It completes the process," he says.

It's cheaper

The big advantage of the Lithion Recycling process? It's so inexpensive to implement that consumers won't have to pay to have their old electric car batteries recycled!

This is far from insignificant. Because, as Pierre-Olivier Roy, CIRAIG's project manager and analyst points out, the main reasons why recycling schemes fail, regardless of the material involved, are economic rather than technical. The problem? Profitability depends above all on the resale of cobalt, which has a high market value. However, some lithium-ion batteries contain no cobalt. In their case, Benoit Couture recognizes that he will have to charge a fee.

Nevertheless, the president of Recyclage Lithion is confident of the success of his project, convinced that his solution will reduce the carbon footprint of lithium-ion batteries. Three years ago, he finally leased a gasoline-powered car... which he'll be giving back in a few months' time. "My next car will be electric", he asserts this time without hesitation.

SOURCE: Un point cinq Média (