How power storage impacts the circular economy

Huawei Senior Data Center Expert ZhaoTian explains how the newly unveiled solar power solution known as PowerS works compared to others on the market. [Jenipher Wachie, Standard]

In our current era of environmental consciousness, the word ‘sustainable’ has become a mantra for industries across the globe.

Amid the clamour, the lead-acid battery sector stands tall for its stellar record in recycling and sustainability. Lead-acid batteries have been recycled for over 100 years.

The lead acid battery recycling process ensures nearly every material used is reclaimed. Typically, a lead acid battery comprises 97 per cent recyclable materials - 85 per cent lead, 5 per cent electrolyte and 7 per cent plastic. 

The lifecycle starts with collecting and transporting spent lead acid batteries to the recycling facility. At the facility, the batteries are mechanically crushed to segregate the three main components: lead, plastic and electrolyte.

Gravity and water are used to separate the components. The crushed plastic casing floats to the surface, where it can be washed and extruded into plastic pellets. New battery cases and other injection moulded plastic items can be manufactured from the pellets. The electrolyte dissolves in water and is neutralised by adding a base, transforming it into water. The lead paste is desulphurised to produce sodium sulfate, an ingredient in paper, textiles, glass, and detergents.

Finally, the lead components sinking to the bottom, including lead oxide, lead grids, and other lead parts, are melted and purified. This reclaimed lead, often of a higher purity than mined lead, is moulded into ingots, ready to start life anew in fresh batteries.

Lead acid batteries can boast nearly 99 per cent recycling rate. A claim only a few products can make. The process is so efficient that many lead acid batteries in circulation today contain lead that has been recycled multiple times.

This closed-loop lifecycle ensures minimal wastage of resources, reduces carbon emissions and sets an example for other products to emulate. The industry significantly reduces the need for mining lead ores by recycling lead.

Mining is a carbon-intensive activity with inherent environmental and social impacts. Worldwide, approximately 70 per cent of lead in battery manufacturing originates from recycling facilities. The recycling process, particularly lead smelting, is far less energy-intensive than primary lead smelting from lead ores, which translates to lower greenhouse gas emissions. Improper disposal of lead batteries can lead to soil contamination and water pollution.

Ensuring spent batteries don’t end up in landfills is key. The industry’s robust collection and recycling systems help negate such environmental risks. The concept of a circular economy revolves around three basic principals, eliminate waste and pollution, circulate products and materials (at their highest value), and regenerate nature. Lead acid batteries are a textbook example of these principles in action. The battery’s lifecycle is predominantly a closed-loop system. From manufacture to use to recycling, and then back to manufacture.

This loop ensures resources like lead are continually reused, minimising environmental impacts and preventing resource exhaustion. Primary lead production from mining has remained static over the last few decades due to recycling.

The economics of recycling lead acid batteries are favourable, making them profitable. Profitable economics ensures sustained industry interest and commitment to the recycling process. The lead battery recycling market was valued at 8.2 billion (USD) in 2021 and is projected to reach 19.8 billion (USD) by 2030.

The writer is Executive Director, Centre for Environmental Action. [email protected]

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