Eriez-Australia takes on battery recycling challenges

Eriez-Australia battery recycling

Jonathan Schulberg of Eriez-Australia talks to WMR about the unique challenges of battery recycling, and how Eriez separation equipment can help.

As Australia pursues a greener future, the demand for technology such as solar panels, and electric vehicles and equipment is growing rapidly. With this demand, so follows the need for renewable energy storage solutions – whether it’s batteries for cars, homes, or cities.

According to Jonathan Schulberg, head of Resource Recovery and Recycling Business Development at Eriez-Australia, this is shining an ever-brighter light on the world of battery recycling.

In particular, lithium-ion battery technology is foundational to almost every piece of technology Australians use in their day-to-day lives. However, the safe recycling of these batteries poses a challenge for the resource recovery industry in Australia – one Jonathan says is still in its infancy.

“Batteries have been a problem in recycling for donkey’s years,” he says. “We’re not just talking about your double A’s and triple A’s. There are so many other aspects to battery recycling that people don’t consider.”

For one, does the average Australian know how to dispose of a dead battery? What about a phone or a laptop? Which bin does it go in? Can it even be recycled?

Jonathan says that, as is true of so much recycling, public education is behind the industry. But the consequences of improper battery disposal can be more serious than an errant plastic container.

“Your strawberry punnet’s not going to burst into flames at a MRF [materials recovery facility],” he says. “But there have been a number of fires over the years caused by lithium batteries.”

Not only that, but old batteries stored in the home can also pose a serious risk.

“It’s something many people don’t realise about the batteries in their phones or their old laptops,” he says. “It’s all well and good when they’re new and being well looked after, but the moment that battery cell starts to deteriorate, it can turn into a bomb. If it’s penetrated and exposed to oxygen, it can ignite and burn quite intensely.”

Jonathan says educating the next generation to treat batteries with the respect they deserve is an important step – but this will still leave the problem of a massive, growing material stream without the infrastructure to keep up.

“There are a range of drop-off points and collection services for spent batteries. But there’s also already more volume than there is processing capacity – so I think we’ll need to see more companies focusing specifically on battery recycling,” he says.

Positively proactive

It’s a niche pocket of the resource recovery industry that Jonathan says remains relatively quiet, with only a handful of companies in Australia set up to recycle batteries properly. Despite this, he says the work being done by the dedicated few is encouraging.

“In the past, the recycling industry in general has been pretty reactive,” Jonathan says. “We’ve found solutions for problems, but it’s usually not until those problems are significant – soft plastics and tyres are both good examples. With batteries, we can’t afford to have the same problem.”

Lithium-ion battery technology is foundational to almost every piece of technology Australians use.
Lithium-ion battery technology is foundational to almost every piece of technology Australians use.

Working in battery recycling’s favour, though, is the value of the raw materials.

“There is a significant market for it,” Jonathan says. “Lithium still has a high value as a recycled material – though processing it can still be time consuming.

“However, we do have companies here taking the necessary steps. And they’re not just looking short-term, they’re thinking 20-25 years into the future, and trying to move with the evolution of the product itself.”

Jonathan says another consideration is limiting the reliance on virgin materials for new batteries, now and in the future.

“Mining for any virgin materials is an expensive game, and lithium is up there as far as cost goes,” he says. “The demand for it as a base product has also grown astronomically over the past 15-20 years, especially with the rise of fully electric cars, which all use lithium-ion technology.

“The industry is now looking at recycling to limit the requirement for virgin materials where it can. That’s the only way we’ll get longevity out of anything – because you can’t just keep digging the stuff out of the ground.

“Eventually, resources dry up – so alternatives need to be found.”

Finetuning

While battery recycling is quite specialised, Jonathan says there is a range of existing recycling equipment that can play a valuable part.

“One positive is that there is already existing separation equipment to support the battery recycling industry,” he says. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”

In terms of the Eriez product range, Jonathan says there is a variety of products useful for processing batteries, including eddy current separators, dynamic pulley separators, suspended permanent magnets, and drum and housing units for fine ferrous separation.

He says that for Eriez, it’s not just about the machinery, but rather how solutions can be fine-tuned to cater to the specific needs of customers. He says this flexibility is core to how Eriez does business.

“In my role, I need to really understand what the customer’s process is – and from there, meet their needs and expectations with our equipment,” Jonathan says.

“There have been instances where we looked at a customer’s needs and decided that our equipment just couldn’t meet their requirements. But we’d rather say ‘look, we’ve given it our best shot, but we don’t feel we’ve got what you need’, than supply something that doesn’t do the job they want it to.”

For more information, visit: www.eriez.com.au

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