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Lithium-ion batteries are at the heart of nearly every electric vehicle, laptop and smartphone, and they are essential to storing renewable energy in the face of the climate emergency. But all of the world’s current mining operations cannot extract enough lithium and other key minerals to meet skyrocketing demand for these batteries. Establishing new mines is an expensive, years-long effort. And mining also creates a host of environmental headaches—such as depleting local water resources and polluting the nearby region with runoff debris—that have led to protests against new mines.

All of this means the ability to recycle existing batteries is crucial for sustainably shifting the global energy system. But recycling lithium-ion batteries has only recently made commercial inroads. Battery manufacturers have hesitated over concerns that recycled products may be lower in quality than those built from newly mined minerals, potentially leading to shorter battery life or damage to the battery’s innards. Consequences could be serious, particularly in an application such as an electric vehicle.

But new research published in Joule has hit upon what experts describe as a more elegant recycling method that refurbishes the cathode—the carefully crafted crystal that is the lithium-ion battery’s most expensive component and key to supplying the proper voltage. The researchers found that batteries they made with their new cathode-recycling technique perform just as well as those with a cathode made from scratch. In fact, batteries with the recycled cathode both last longer and charge faster. The team’s approach and successful demonstration are “very unique and very impressive,” says Kang Xu, an electrochemist at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, who was not involved in the study.

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