New Delhi: At a point where the electric vehicles (EVs) are expected to bring a ‘green future’, it is also tagged along with an associated cost. The cost here denotes the hazardous vehicle waste that is left after the typical full usage of an EV. Batteries of EVs after their usage need to be accurately managed to avoid them being harmful to the environment.
One solution to this problem could be ‘Battery Recycling’ and ‘Battery Reusing’, if the battery cells are accurately processed. This opens up a platform where manufacturers of automobiles and EVs can extract valuable minerals and other materials through an effective battery recycling process.
As per a McKinsey report battery production scraps are expected to cross 800k tons by 2030 whereas end-of-life battery scrap is expected to cross 1,100 tons per annum by 2030.
The process of battery recycling
The process of recycling a lithium battery through accurate procedures to extract precious materials is known as lithium-ion battery recycling. It is estimated that a lithium-ion battery used in EVs lasts for about 10-15 years, however, it may vary on several aspects including the quality of the battery, its usage, care provided to the battery, and many more. With the advancements in technology, a hope for increased shelf life of an EV battery is there.
After the service life of a lithium-ion battery it can be recycled, and there can be extraction of leftover materials. In India, companies like Lohum, Tata Chemicals, Attero, Metastable, and a few more have established their business in lithium-ion battery recycling.
The recycling of batteries commonly is first done by first accumulating the lithium-ion batteries (LiB) used in EVs, and further pre-processing and disassembling them, followed by the discharge of LiBs. The next step is the production of ‘Black Mass’ through a mechanical/thermal process, which is further sent for recycling to the appropriate companies.
Black mass refers to the substance obtained with a high amount of lithium, manganese, cobalt, and nickel. These materials can be reapplied in a battery or be used for a completely different purpose.
LiB recycling is done through two major processes of Pyrometallurgy, and Hydrometallurgy.
Pyrometallurgy: It is a treatment where ores are heated at high temperatures to extract minerals. Around 50-60% of minerals are extracted from batteries such as nickel and cadmium, though it leaves both lithium and aluminium behind with a low rate of recovery.
Hydrometallurgy: The companies that opted for this technology, use a process called “mechanical pre-treatment” to extract black mass. The next step is to do leaching where reagents and solvents are used. Furthermore, metal deposition is done via chemical or electro-extraction to recover the minerals, where its recovery rate goes as high as 95%.
On average the capex per turn is USD 6000 to USD 10,000, however, Attero’s capex per turn is USD 3200,said Nitin Gupta, CEO & Co-founder, Attero. To achieve this they have built a significant technological advantage and arbitrage, which they are using now to scale up, he added.
Major lithium-ion battery recycling companies
Attero: Attero has been granted 45 global patents on the process of recycling the batteries. They extract pure cobalt, lithium carbonate, graphite, and nickel.
Talking about its 45 global patents Nitin Gupta said, “We have today over 45 granted global patents on recycling technologies developed in India. There are few key unique points. First, our ability to process all kinds of lithium-ion batteries. Second, our ability to extract these battery-grade materials at a very high-efficiency rate. So we are extracting all of these battery-grade materials at more than 98% efficiency levels. What that means, is if in the incoming battery, let’s say, 100 grams of cobalt, 100 grams of lithium carbonate, we are extracting 98 grams or more of pure battery.”
At present, Attero can recycle 11000 tonnes of EV/ Li-ion batteries, which is by far the largest capacity and it is in the process of scaling up to 15000 metric tonnes by February 2024, with the intention of having 3 lakh tonnes of lithium refining capacity globally annually in the next four years. Out of which 100000 would be for the Indian market, and 1 lakh each for the US and Europe market.
Metastable: To become one of the leading battery recycling companies, Metastable has followed a philosophy of looking at waste as ‘ores’ which develops an end-to-end solution. Adding to which Shubham Vishvakarma, Co-Founder and Chief of Process Engineering, said, “Our patented “Integrated Carbothermal ReductionTM” process is completely chemical-free and highly scalable, by which we collect spent batteries and can extract all the minerals in their commodity form”. This liberates the consumer to utilize it in the relevant industries, thus creating a circular economy of the critical minerals.
Lohum: Lohum last year became the first company outside China and one of 5 companies globally to produce lithium in its pure metallic form at scale.
Talking about the technology applied, Rajat Verma, founder and CEO, Lohum, said, “Hydro-metallurgy and direct recycling are gaining industry-wide proliferation, such as LOHUM’s NEETM (a combination of Hydro-metallurgy and Mechanical processing), since these methods are more GHGe (Green House Gas Emission0 efficient & water efficient than Pyro-metallurgy. Our recycled high-purity battery metals and metal salts, precursor materials, Cathode Active Materials (CAM), and higher-value alloys are utilized by various Energy Transition ecosystem stakeholders and auxiliary industries.”
The demand for pure lithium metal can be in EV batteries, consumer electronics batteries, Aerospace, advanced metallurgy, and medical and industrial compounds.
Tata Chemicals: Tata Chemicals recovers metals like Lithium, Cobalt, Nickel and Manganese at 99% plus purity with-in industry leading levels of yield. Their recycling operations are carried out at a 3P facility located near Mumbai. They aim to scale the recycling to 500 tons of spent Li-ion batteries.
The need for lithium-ion battery recycling
LiB recycling paves the way to achieve decarbonization, provides circular battery waste management and builds reserves of resources. It aids in boosting mainly economic and environmental situations in the country.
According to the data from MarketsandMarkets LiB was valued at USD 6.5 billion in 2022 and is projected to achieve USD 35.1 billion by 2031, at a growth rate of 20.6%. Thus, this industry can provide multiple employment opportunities, stability in the country, and revenue generation. It also contributes to the achievement of ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ as it reduces the dependence on imports for several mineral reserves.
To which Rajat Verma, added, “It contributes to conserving natural resources by lithium battery recycling and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. It also minimizes electronic waste by LiB recycling and promotes decarbonization. It is a tangible roadway to preserve the environment and takes a step towards energy transition.”
Challenges for lithium-ion battery recycling
Lack of standardization: Due to the customized size, electrode chemistries, format, and power of batteries as per the OEM’s there is no standardization which further increases the complexity.
Stringent government policies: Currently, the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change is in charge of recycling/refurbishing the waste batteries. The ministry has more stringent rules for land usage thus making it more expensive.
Safety: There is a huge risk to safety during the process of removal, testing, and disassembling of the waste battery.
Lack of financial aid: As per the PLI Scheme, there is a minimum percentage of minerals that have to be extracted from waste batteries; however, no financial incentives have been provided as of this article’s publishing date and time.
Multiple challenges are restricting the growth of the lithium-ion battery recycling industry. According to Rajat Verma, “There is a dearth of infrastructure and facilities for the efficient and effective recycling of lithium-ion batteries, especially in developing countries and regions. The recycling rate of lithium-ion batteries is still in single-digit percentages, and most of the batteries in circulation before Extended Producer Responsibility regulations, still end up in landfills or incinerators.”