Recycling to complete a circular economy
Companies prepare for eventual battery material reclamation Critical Minerals Alliances - September 2021
Last updated 9/16/2021 at 9:24am
Reminiscent of America's gilded age, the world is priming itself for a new era of technology and energy centered on the electricity that sparked the imaginations of visionaries such as Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison. This new era, however, sets aside more than a century of burning fossil fuels in favor of new clean sources of the electricity that will power human innovation into the 21st century and beyond.
Solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal are but a few of the methods mankind has devised to generate 21st-century electricity without expending finite resources. With the early stirrings of this green transition, perhaps, for the first time in history, the global community has an opportunity to prepare for a full circular lifecycle of the world's energy and mobility technologies.
After the clean energy infrastructure is established and electric vehicles are built, what will people do with the spent batteries and worn-down amenities that provided clean energy and sustainability? The logical answer is to recycle them.
"Unlike fossil fuels, elemental battery metals are never consumed, and the development of economically competitive battery recycling systems can move industry to a closed-loop circular economy for these critical minerals," the Nevada-based American Battery Technology penned in response to a U.S. Department of Energy request for information on risks in American high-capacity battery supply chains.
In a report published by the World Bank in 2020, it estimated that the annual demand for battery materials alone – such as cobalt, graphite, lithium, manganese, and nickel – could increase by roughly 500% over the coming three decades. This projection is generalized and even considered vastly conservative by lithium-ion battery insiders.
The International Energy Agency estimates that roughly 117 pounds of copper and 54 lb of manganese, double the amount in a conventional internal combustion engine, goes into the average electric vehicle. On top of that, standard lithium-ion EV batteries need around 146 lb of graphite, 88 lb of nickel, 29 lb of cobalt, and 20 lb of lithium.
In climate-driven scenarios, the IEA forecasts that the batteries used to power EVs and store electricity at grid-scale will demand at least thirty times more minerals in 2040 than they do today.
While recycling will eventually fill large portions of the world's EV and renewable energy mineral needs, it will initially take large-scale mining to feed EV markets with enough minerals and metals to prime this circular economy.
Nevertheless, that will not stop a handful of companies from preparing for that eventual outcome by developing technologies to reprocess, repurpose, and recycle the vital minerals and metals necessary to produce these technologies.
While a completed circle is decades off, there is no better time than now to prepare for when the life of today's EVs and renewable energy sources run their course, so future generations are not left with a bill they cannot pay.
Perhaps, General Motors global chief marketing officer Deborah Wahl said it best regarding today's green transition.
"There are moments in history when everything changes. Inflection points. We believe such a point is upon us for the mass adoption of electric vehicles."
This was during the unveiling of the automaker's rebranding and launch of its "Everybody In" campaign earlier this year, setting an optimistic tone for its EV future.
Aligning with that optimism, the legacy carmaker has already begun taking steps to ensure the battery recycling capacity is in place well before large quantities of its early generation EVs reach the end of their lifecycle.
To prepare for a successful circulation of the materials put into its newest line of Ultium battery EVs, GM has entered into a multi-year contract with Canada-based Li-Cycle Corp. to recycle up to 100% of the scrap generated by its massive three million-square-foot battery cell manufacturing facility.
"GM's zero-waste initiative aims to divert more than 90 percent of its manufacturing waste from landfills and incineration globally by 2025," said Ken Morris, GM vice president of electric and autonomous vehicles. "Now, we're going to work closely with Ultium Cells and Li-Cycle to help the industry get even better use out of the materials."
By recycling Ultium scrap, Li-Cycle will help GM get the most out of its current battery materials. In addition, this recycling partnership is expected to be an essential piece in closing the circular battery supply chain as North America's EV production ramps up.
Its partnership with GM is the premise Li-Cycle was founded on – provide an end-of-life lithium-ion battery solution that creates a secondary supply of critical battery metals to meet the increasing demand while also ensuring a sustainable future for our planet.
"Our combined efforts with Ultium and GM will be instrumental in redirecting battery manufacturing scrap from landfills and returning a substantial amount of valuable battery-grade materials back into the battery supply chain," said Li-Cycle President and CEO Ajay Kochhar.
Established in Ontario, Canada, Li-Cycle has developed a method to safely and sustainably process lithium-ion batteries by utilizing a unique proprietary solvent extraction process via its "spoke and hub model" to recycle spent batteries.
The spokes are the distributed network of how it takes in all types of lithium-ion batteries and transforms them into an inert product that is shredded and separated.
The remnants, colloquially known as "black mass," comprised of lithium, nickel, and cobalt on the cathode side and graphite on the anode side, is then taken to the hub.
The hub is a centralized operation. With 12 spokes to every hub, they convert the black mass directly to battery-grade chemicals and use a non-thermal process that purifies the materials to transform them back into ready battery-grade materials for future lithium-ion batteries.
Li-Cycle is not alone in its efforts, though, as another Canadian company has also taken steps to prepare for the eventual recirculation of end-of-life batteries.
As a pioneer in lithium-ion battery cathode recycling, British Columbia-based American Manganese Inc. has quickly grasped the dilemma of future battery materials scarcity and has come up with a solution that allows its patented RecycLiCo process to upcycle old cathodes to the new chemistries being used in the batteries powering EVs.
By dissolving cathode material from spent lithium-ion batteries or scrap from the manufacturing process, the company has shown that its approach can produce greater than 99.9% pure cathode material – with precisely the same nickel-manganese-cobalt ratio as the input material.
In response to the Biden Administration's Executive Order directing a 100-day battery supply chain review, American Manganese offered comments regarding the order while working closely with the U.S. Department of Energy and the Department of Defense – as members of a newly-designated U.S. Government "Battery Recovery and Recycling Task Force."
"American Manganese has been conducting recycling tests with battery cell manufacturing scrap since we commissioned our pilot plant in 2019 and are pleased to be recognized in the report as a North American recycler," said Larry Reaugh, President and CEO of American Manganese. "... we believe American Manganese can be a strong private-sector partner in the U.S. Government's new Battery Recovery and Recycling Task Force."
American Manganese says the ability to recovery nearly 100% of the material and then produce a high-quality cathode material that does not need further processing makes RecycLiCo a cost-effective and efficient solution for achieving the battery materials recycling required to tackle future demand.
American Battery Technology Company
While Canadian companies have taken the lead for North American battery metals recycling, the U.S. has quickly gained traction with the help of American Battery Technology Company. Previously called American Battery Metals, the Nevada-based exploration and mining company is focused on creating vertically integrated lithium that is environmentally sustainable in its mining and exploration, and green in its extraction processes, as well as its battery metal recycling.
American Battery has built a clean technology platform designed to produce the primary materials used in batteries. As another closed-loop recycling system, similar to Li-Cycle and American Manganese, the idea is still toward recycling end-of-life lithium-ion batteries and putting them back into the market.
By disassembling the batteries in a three-hour automated process, removing unwanted content to minimize contamination and pollution, American Battery uses its own proprietary approach to reinvigorate used battery materials.
The materials are given a chemical bath, cleaned, filtered, and reused. High-grade metals include the much-needed lithium, cobalt, nickel, copper, and graphite, as well as the ever-present aluminum.
American Battery expects to process 20,000 metric tons per year of recycled material with its commercial pilot plant currently undergoing permitting.
"Our planned 20,000 metric ton per year lithium-ion battery recycling pilot plant has commenced permitting and design-build construction," said Doug Cole, CEO of American Battery Technology Company. "Its onsite global development center will support both recycling battery metal extraction technologies. ... The pilot plant, located in an opportunity zone, is estimated to benefit the local economy by over $348 million in its first 10 years of operation, and will be scalable and repeatable for future plants around the United States."
Just as crucial to the future renewable transition are powerful rare earth element magnets in EV motors and wind turbines. It is estimated that upwards of US$13.8 billion worth of rare earth magnets are imported into the U.S. each year, which is creating a stockpile of the minerals and metals critical to the green transition.
Canada-based Geomega Resources has developed a process to recover the rare earths from those powerful magnets that are also used in medical resonance imaging (MRI), computer hard drives, and high-fidelity speakers to recycle them back into the North American manufacturing sector.
Focused on developing clean technologies for the mining, refining, and recycling of rare earths, Geomega has made strong headway demonstrating the viability of this technology at its pilot plant in Quebec.
Using a proprietary REE separation technology known as ISR, Geomega's pilot plant will have the capacity to process 4.5 metric tons of magnet waste per day. The company says ISR is inexpensive and is more environmentally sound than traditional solvent extraction rare earth recycling techniques.
Geomega has partnered with New York-based USA Rare Earth to recycle rare earth-containing waste from producing neodymium-iron-boron permanent magnets at a facility the latter company is planning to build in the U.S.
"We are very excited to be working in collaboration with USA Rare Earth. We both share the same vision to bring rare earth magnet production back to North America while securing the critical rare earth elements using Geomega's clean technology to process magnet waste," said Geomega Resources President and CEO Kiril Mugerman. "It is exciting to be part of USA Rare Earth mine-to-magnet strategy which we can participate in and support using our rare earth clean recycling technology."
Further details on USA Rare Earths' mines-to-magnets strategy can be read at Made in North America rare earths return in this edition of Critical Minerals Alliances.
Not one to be outdone, the number one carmaker in the world, Volkswagen has shown its impressive foresight and, like GM, has also opted to begin preparing to recycle its EV lithium-ion batteries.
Unlike GM, however, Volkswagen has elected to build its own.
Though Volkswagen does not expect any appreciable quantities of spent batteries for at least another decade, the German automaker has already constructed its first plant to recover more than 90% of the raw materials from its cells.
"We are implementing the sustainable recyclable materials cycle – and play a pioneering role in the industry for a future-oriented issue with great potential for climate protection and raw material supply," said Volkswagen Group Components Chairman Thomas Schmall.
Its recycling process does not use an energy-intensive blast furnace to melt down the battery metals for recycling. Instead, the individual parts of dismantled batteries are ground into granules and dried. In addition to aluminum, copper, and plastics, this process yields "black mass," which also contains the lithium, nickel, cobalt, and graphite important for future batteries.
These valuable battery materials are then separated into individual metals and minerals with hydrometallurgical processes – using water and chemical agents – by Volkswagen partners specializing in metal separation.
As the world primes itself for a new era of electricity, Volkswagen, GM, and a growing list of innovative companies have seen a bigger picture and are looking beyond present supply chain concerns. While the going will be rough to meet the critical minerals demand projected by industry analysts, once the cycle is fully underway, these companies will be well established when the explosive growth in demand for the burgeoning battery recycling side of the circular EV and renewable energy economy fully emerges.