Wind turbines and solar panels generating clean energy next to gas processing plant

Critical minerals such as lithium and cobalt are essential to power the technologies that can reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. Yet growing demand for these minerals, combined with supply chain concerns, could put our clean energy future at risk. Recycling could offer a sustainable pathway to meet rising demand for these minerals. By reclaiming critical minerals from e-waste and mine tailings, we can reduce society’s reliance on mining, reducing our impact on natural resources

Experts predict that the demand for lithium, cobalt, and rare earths will outstrip supply within the next decade. The International Energy Agency (IEA) says demand for copper and rare earth elements will increase by 40%, nickel and cobalt by 60% to 70%, and lithium by 90%. However, global supply challenges — including tricky geopolitics (the supply chain is dominated by China) and environmental, social, and governance (ESG)  and human rights issues that plague the mining sector— may lead to skyrocketing prices. This looming supply-demand gap poses a serious threat to the development and widespread adoption of clean technologies.

However, a large source of critical minerals is already available, around us and under our feet in electronics, EV batteries, and discarded technology in landfills or currently in use. The recycling of critical minerals is a new, essential industry just emerging into daily life. How can you take part?

Minerals Required for Green Energy Technologies
Source: “Green Conflict Minerals: The fuels of conflict in the transition to a low-carbon economy,” IISD

Critical Minerals and Green Technology

Electric vehicle (EV) companies rely on lithium, cobalt, and rare earths to enable efficient energy storage in their high-performance batteries. These minerals allow EVs to travel longer distances, which is key to reducing carbon emissions in the transportation sector. And energy storage systems, crucial for storing solar energy for use during cloudy periods or at night, rely on critical minerals in their batteries.

Making green hydrogen fuel, a promising clean energy solution, also relies on catalysts containing precious metals like platinum and iridium. These minerals are used in electrolyzers that produce hydrogen by splitting water molecules. And home solar technologies, such as solar panels, utilize minerals such as silicon, tellurium, and cadmium to convert sunlight into electricity.

Wind turbines, an integral part of wind power generation, require minerals like rare earths, specifically neodymium, praseodymium, and dysprosium. These minerals are used to optimize the efficiency and performance of generators in wind turbines. Critical minerals also have a significant presence in our everyday devices. Smartphones, for example, rely on minerals such as cobalt, rare earths, and tantalum for their functionality.

Critical Mineral Supply Challenges

The global supply of critical minerals faces complex geopolitical challenges, including the escalating tensions between the United States and China. The U.S. government is ramping up competition with China, the largest maker of clean energy technologies, which could create supply chain vulnerability for U.S. manufacturers of solar panels and films, batteries, and wind turbines. China could cut off or restrict access to critical minerals, which could have severe implications for U.S. clean energy progress.

The environmental and social costs of mining represent significant roadblocks in the energy transition. Many critical mineral resources are concentrated in resource-rich countries with unstable political and social environments, where human rights abuses, environmental degradation, and socioeconomic tensions are common.

Mining operations in these countries are associated with intense environmental damage, including deforestation (more than 60% of the world’s nickel reserves are in forested areas), water pollution, and habitat destruction, affecting not only nature but also surrounding communities and indigenous populations. The extraction process damages ecosystems and the well-being of workers and communities, which can lead to protests, conflicts, and disruptions in mining operations. For example, 50% of lithium deposits are concentrated in water-stressed regions of South America, further exacerbating the socioeconomic impact of the global water crisis.

Countries accounting for the largest share of global supply of critical minerals
Countries accounting for the largest share of global supply of critical minerals. Source: “The role of justice in developing critical minerals,” Journal of Extractives Industries and Society, Raphael J. Heffron

Recycling Solutions

Recycling critical minerals offers one promising solution to help address supply challenges and reduce the environmental impact of mining.

The IEA estimates that by 2040, recycled copper, lithium, nickel, and cobalt from spent batteries alone could provide for 10% of the demand for these minerals. The Worldwide Wildlife Fund says recycling could potentially supply 20% of total mineral demand between 2022 and 2050. By extracting valuable minerals from end-of-life products (such as phones) and mine tailings, we can reduce our reliance on raw mineral extraction and alleviate the strain on natural resources.

Recycling also reduces the need for extensive primary mining operations, which could reduce habitat destruction, water pollution, and carbon emissions associated with mining and refining processes. The value generated from recycling critical minerals could contribute to the development of a circular economy, creating new job opportunities, fostering innovation, and enhancing domestic self-sufficiency. Investments in recycling businesses in under-served communities could also ameliorate social concerns by reducing negative impacts on local communities, indigenous peoples, and mine workers.

Successful recycling practices have emerged for different critical minerals like lithium, cobalt, rare earths, and platinum. Several companies are leading the way in recycling critical minerals. Beyond the well-known examples of Apple, BMW, Tesla, and Lucid, innovative companies like Redwood Materials (founded by Tesla’s former chief technology officer) and Nth Cycle are engaged in developing battery technology and recycling processes.

Lithium EV battery pack
By recycling used EV batteries, we can recover lithium, cobalt, nickel, and other valuable metals.

Recycling Lithium From EV Batteries

One example of successful recycling is the process used for lithium-ion batteries, which are widely used in electric vehicles and portable electronics. Battery recycling typically involves shredding and crushing the batteries to separate the different components. The recovered materials, including lithium, cobalt, nickel, and other valuable metals, undergo further treatments to purify and refine them for reuse in new batteries.

A Massachusetts company, Ascend Elements, recently opened the largest electric vehicle battery recycling facility with the capacity to process 30,000 metric tons of used lithium-ion batteries and manufacturing scrap annually. Ascend Elements says its Hydro-to-Cathode process can recover up to 98% of critical battery metals, which could reduce the carbon footprint of new EV battery cathode materials by 90%. Powered by renewable energy, the facility also features onsite wastewater recycling to reduce its water impacts.

German carmaker BMW has established a comprehensive EV battery recycling program through partnerships with recycling companies like Northvolt, which is building Europe’s largest battery factory in Sweden, and Belgium’s Umicore.

Recycling Rare Earth Elements From Electronics

Rare earth elements (REEs) can be recycled for use in various technologies, including wind turbines, electric motors, and computer screens. Nth Cycle is a Boston-based company that uses innovative technology to recover rare earth elements from discarded electronics and other waste streams. The computer industry has supported rare earths recycling to lower its dependence on overseas suppliers. In a recent report, Apple revealed that 73% of the rare earth materials used in its products were recycled, up from 45% just a year earlier.

Reclaiming Platinum From Catalytic Converters

Platinum, large quantities of which are needed to make catalytic converters and fuel cells, can also be recycled, which is driving the wave of converter thefts. The recycling process typically involves collecting and processing used catalytic converters from cars. By recycling platinum, which sells for $963 an ounce at this writing, companies can recover this valuable resource and reduce the demand for primary mining.

Mining trucks transport platinum for processing
Today, mining for critical minerals is often cheaper than recycling due to economies of scale and the availability of low-cost labor.

Policy Incentives for the Critical Minerals Recycling Industry

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), as part of its National Blueprint for Lithium Batteries, recently announced a significant funding allocation of over $192 million for various initiatives related to battery recycling and research. This funding includes the launch of an advanced battery research and development consortium, as well as the continuation of the Lithium-Ion Battery Recycling Prize. These measures are aimed at promoting sustainable and cost-effective recycling of consumer batteries to support a secure, resilient, and circular domestic supply chain for critical materials.

With the anticipated surge in demand for electric vehicles and stationary energy storage, the DOE’s investment in recycling consumer batteries aligns with the Biden-Harris Administration’s goal of having EVs account for half of all vehicle sales in America by 2030. It also builds upon the nearly $3 billion in funding already announced for EV and battery technologies as part of President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

The DOE’s $125-million Consumer Electronics Battery Recycling, Reprocessing, and Battery Collection program plays a crucial role in the $7 billion investment authorized by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, aiming to bolster and secure America’s battery supply chain. The program focuses on several key areas:

  • Developing and implementing education and behavior change campaigns: The funding will support initiatives to increase consumer participation in existing battery recycling programs.
  • Improving the economics of consumer electronics battery recycling: The program aims to make recycling consumer electronics batteries more economically viable.
  • Assisting states and local governments in battery collection and recycling: The funding provides support for states and local governments to establish or enhance battery collection, recycling, and reprocessing programs.
  • Supporting retailers in implementing battery collection programs: The DOE’s funding helps retailers establish comprehensive programs to collect, sort, store, and transport consumer electronics batteries.

What Can Consumers Do?

To support the transition to a greener and more sustainable future, it’s important for each of us to act by putting materials into the right recycling stream.

The Department of Energy’s consumer guide to recycling batteries features Earth911’s recycling locator to provide battery recycling locations where consumers can responsibly recycle every type of battery. For successful battery recycling, it’s essential to understand the different types and how to properly dispose of them.

With the major investment in battery recycling by the DOE, more manufacturers will develop products that incorporate recycled battery materials. Your purchases can contribute to recycling momentum. When shopping for consumer electronics, look for products that explicitly mention the use of recycled batteries. Most companies using sustainable or recycled products indicate this on the product label. When we opt for electronics, batteries, and other items that incorporate recycled materials, we’re not only supporting sustainable sourcing practices but also encouraging companies to prioritize recycling in their supply chains.

Lastly, consumers can demand transparency from companies about their sourcing and recycling practices. By asking questions to companies on their sourcing and doing your own research on brands that have committed to using recycled materials or have their own recycling programs (Apple, Samsung, Lucid, and Tesla, among many others). When we make more informed choices and support brands that prioritize responsible and ethical management of critical minerals, nature gets a break.

By Tokollo Matsabu

Tokollo is a sustainability advisor and writer based in Washington, D.C.